The Nature of Eternal Punishment

James Oliver Buswell, Jr.

Pastor of Grace Reformed Church, Brooklyn, N. Y.


We shall live forever with God’s eyes upon us.
Will this be Heaven or Hell for you?
Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ
before it is too late.


Returned Soldiers’ Views on Eternal Punishment

The following short article, reprinted by permission of the Sunday School Times, was written during the Summer of 1919, just after the writer returned from France.

For a long time many in the church of Jesus Christ have been nauseated and disgusted with insipid contradictions of the Scriptural doctrine of eternal punishment. The most foolish of these contradictions is the saying, “You can’t tell returning soldiers that God will punish unbelievers,” heard on every hand when the American Expeditionary Forces were being demobilized and sent to the transports.

Can we not restrain theoretical writers from making those returned soldiers responsible for all their own absurdities? Of course, the war was tremendous, and, of course, none but divine intelligence will ever see it from all points of view, but the fact still remains that testimony is of more value than opinion. I feel constrained, therefore, to bring my small but actual experience to bear upon the question, “What is the returned soldier’s view of eternal punishment?”

My experience must here be intimated, simply as to my qualifications to speak on this question. There is nothing of which to boast, but for four awful days of the Meuse-Argonne offensive I shared the experiences of the enlisted men and line officers of the One Hundred and Fortieth Infantry Regiment. I was a chaplain with the rank of first lieutenant, and served at the time with the Second Battalion, under Major Maybery, of Kansas City. We went over Vouquois Hill the morning of September 26, 1918. I was armed with a forty-five automatic, carried ammunition for men who needed it, helped to dig a machine gun emplacement at one time when a counter attack was expected, twice had the equipment I was carrying shot through, once buried two men where we dared not remove our helmets as I led in prayer, and spent most of the time doing first aid work, under constant fire, till I was wounded about noon on Sunday, September 29, 1918. I wore no Red Cross brassard. My “citation” was not an extreme honor, but I feel that it entitles me to testify as a “returned soldier.” I had almost three months of experience in Camp Dodge and Camp Taylor before going to France, and in the six months following the armistice I visited almost every part of France and talked with men from every quarter of the United States.

Many of those who have been telling us every sort of thing that the returning soldiers do or do not believe, had some experience in camp or French billet. But not one of these statements which I have read, to the effect that “You can’t tell returning soldiers that God will punish unbelievers,” comes from a man who ever himself heard shells whine and felt the impact of terrific explosions, or heard the rapid “chirp, chirp, chirp!” of machine- gun bullets flying through the air about him, or even heard a single stray shell say, as the Negro boy interpreted it, “You-ou-ou ain’t goin’ back to Ala—BAM!” It is men who do not know who are so ready to tell us what returning soldiers think on the subject of eternity.

My testimony, then, is that this generalization, like so many others with which the air is nowadays filled, is not founded on fact. The best spirit of army life, as men and officers understood it, may be summed up in these words:

“Officers must be devoted to their men, and men to their leaders and their ‘buddies’; give every man a square chance to co-operate and ‘be decent’; but the man who will not co-operate under a captain who is devoted to his men is endangering the lives of his comrades, and must be punished with an iron hand.”

Returning soldiers have lived out these principles. I know officers who loved every man in their command; and I know that while most men will respond to love and justice, there are a few who will not. For such men “company punishment” and the “guard house” are the only just treatment.

Now, if I know anything about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Bible truth, it is that God treats men (in an infinitely perfect way) just as Christian army officers of my acquaintance tried to treat their men. I have frequently preached on eternal punishment to the men of my regiment. I should judge that this subject has been about six per cent, of my message, in sermon and in private conversation, ever since my ministry began.

I want to testify that never has the Holy Spirit found more heart-searching response and attention during my attempts to “hold forth the Word” than in the discussion of this subject. I have often told my men that “Any one who is willing to be decent with God will come to Christ, accept the forgiveness made possible by his death, and thenceforth, by his help, will obey him, live for him, and co-operate with him.” But, “this is the condemnation, that Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” I have rarely seen a man who was not stimulated to better things by the plain teaching of the fact that God will eternally punish those who refuse to respond in faith to the love of Christ as it is revealed to us in the blood of the cross.

Not only is the plain Christian teaching on the subject of eternal punishment in harmony with the best spirit of army life, but the Word of God, destructively criticized though it may be by those who deny (is it for their own peace of mind?) this scriptural teaching, found ready access to the hearts of our best and bravest, and God’s Book always brings its own best evidence. To deny any teaching of the Bible in the presence of those who lived by it day and night in every hour of peril was to deny the one light on the dark path, the one guide which made us understand and kept us from losing our reason.

“But,” I have heard some say, in true Mohammedan fashion, “for mere military efficiency the men ought to be told that those who die on the field of battle will go straight to heaven.” Of course, we tried no such dastardly experiment, but the thing that did happen in our regiment sheds an interesting light on such an opinion. Just before the Meuse-Argonne offensive, we were billeted in Camp Marquette for about five days. Everyone knew that we were going into a drive; the spirit of soberness was in the air. We had a revival there, the fruits of which manifested themselves as long as a I was with the regiment. About thirty-five presented themselves for baptism, and in two days about a hundred and fifty men came to one or the other of us, the two regimental chaplains, stating that they wanted to be known as Christian men. Some of these were already devout Christian characters, and others had just then found Christ as their Saviour. We kept a list of them all, calling them the “One Hundred Fortieth Infantry Church.” They were men who had come to Christ as a result of the simple preaching of the old Gospel.

Two-thirds of our regiment were killed or wounded in the five days which followed. Ninety per cent, of those Christian men whose names we had were either killed or wounded. Can anyone deny the conclusion that in a regiment of brave men the bravest, the most daring, were the men whose faith was in Christ? A delusion, a lie, can never strengthen a man for long. How much better it is to preach the simple Gospel!

May I tell, in connection with the subject of this article, what seemed to me the greatest lesson I learned from my experience in France? It was that men usually die as they have lived. I have seen men at the point of death with prayers on their lips, but I have seen others cursing and swearing in the name of Christ who died to save them. It is a Devil’s lie which says that all are saved who die in battle! Some were saved, but others were damned! I have heard some of the last words of dying men; I know the lives of others who almost died, but recovered, only to go on in ribald, licentious wantonness. We are prone to forget that a debauch and a dance took place at the foot of Sinai! True, one thief on the cross was saved, “that none might despair,” but one was lost, “that none might presume”! Most of those men who refused the Gospel invitation given before the offensive, died as they had lived.

God is just, and a great punishment awaits those who refuse his plan of grace. Christ’s coming, his life and his death were to show God’s love and forgiveness. But he clearly tells us that he will come again in judgment, to destroy those who have turned their backs upon the love of God. The returned soldiers fought for justice, and a God who does not punish those who refuse his love as manifested in his mortal sacrifice is not the God who guided them in their great work.

Scripture Symposium

The following collection of Scripture passages presents, I believe, a fair and comprehensive symposium of Scripture teaching on the subject of eternal punishment. These passages have been selected, of course, from among a great many others which might as well have been chosen as these, but I am not able to discover in any other passage any direct suggestion as to the nature of eternal punishment, which is not found in the following collection. The reader must certainly familiarize himself with the context of these passages before basing any judgment upon them.

The Heart of the Matter,—Love of Evil instead of Love of Christ.

John 3:16–21. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned, but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”

The following passages suggest separation from happy fellowship with Christ.

Matt. 7:21–23. (From the Sermon on the Mount.) “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father Who is in Heaven. Many shall say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by Thy name, and by Thy name cast out demons, and by Thy name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you, depart from me ye that work iniquity.”

Matt. 25:11, 12. (Parable of the Virgins.) “Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us. But He answered and said, Verily, I say unto you, I know you not.”

Matt. 25:30. (Parable of the Talents.) “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matt. 25:41. (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.) “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me ye cursed into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.”

In the following passages the Divine Presence is spoken of in connection with eternal punishment.

2 Thes. l: 7b–9. “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in a flame of fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction by (ἀπὸ) the presence of the Lord and by the glory of His power.” (Compare Isa. 6:5 and 2:19.)

Rev. 14:10. “The same (who worship the beast) shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of His indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”

Notice that God’s “wrath” and “indignation” are figuratively likened to wine poured into a cup. The ancient custom of giving poison as a punishment may have given rise to this figure of speech.

In the following pasages the worm, or worms, are spoken of in connection with eternal punishment.

Isa. 14:11. “Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee and the worms cover thee.”

Isa. 66:22–24. “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses 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.”

Mk. 9:47–49. “And if thine eye cause thee to stumble, cast it out; it is good for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell; where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. For everyone shall be salted with fire.”

In certain passages (Gen. 19:24; Lk. 17:29; Deut. 29:23; Job 18:15; Ps. 11:6; Ezek. 38:22; Isa. 30:33; Isa. 34:8, 9; and Rev. 9:17, 18) brimstone, or fire and brimstone, are referred to in various temporal punishments. All of these passages are made, loosely, or definitely, to refer to eternal punishment by the words of

Jude 7. “Even so Sodom and Gomorrha and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”

In the following passages fire, or fire and brimstone, are definitely associated with eternal punishment.

Matt. 25:41. (See above.)

Rev. 14:10. (See above.)

Isa. 66:22:24. (See above.)

Mk. 9:47–49. (See above.)

Rev. 19:20. “And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone.”

Rev. 20:10. “And the Devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

Rev. 20:14–15. “And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”

Rev. 21:8. “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

States of the Dead During the Present Time

In order to limit our subject, we shall not discuss the various scriptural references to the place or condition of the dead during the present age. Sheol, Tophet, Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, and the Bottomless Pit, all these terms are adequately discussed in the Bible dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and will be touched upon only in so far as they are used to refer to the final state of the unrighteous dead after what is commonly called the last judgment, when “Death and Hades shall be cast into the Lake of Fire” (Rev. 20:14).

We shall not discuss the wholly un-Scriptural doctrine of Purgatory, for it has no reference to the final state of the unrighteous dead.


Section I. Introduction

Reason for this Thesis.

Right and Duty of Inquiry.

Intellectual Honesty.

Questioning in Honesty.

Questioning in Faith.

Questioning in Reverence.

Section II. Sin, The Reason For Eternal Punishment

Definition and Analysis of Sin.

Hereditary Sin, Not the Reason for Eternal Punishment.

Sin in Social Heredity.

Sin in Physiological Heredity.

Heredity of Acquired Characteristics.

Is Sin An Acquired Characteristic?

The Human Species Not Morally Changed.

Is Our Method of Classification Correct?

The Sinless Humanity of Christ.

Hereditary Sin, and the Origin and Nature of the Human Soul.

Reality of Hereditary Sin.

Hereditary Sin Implied in Scripture.

Hereditary Sin Expressly Taught.

Accountability for Hereditary Sin.

God’s Remedy for Hereditary Sin.

Hereditary Sin to be repented of.

Particular Sins, Not the Reason for Eternal Punishment.

Sinlessness Without Christ?

Involuntary Sin, Not the Reason for Eternal Punishment.

Involuntary Sin to be Repented of.

Voluntary Sin, Not the Reason for Eternal Punishment.

Determinism, or Mechanism.


Moral Responsibility for Voluntary Sins.

Works Regarded as Indication of Faith in Christ.

Eternal Sin.

Rejecting Christ, The Reason for Eternal Punishment.

(What of the Unevangelized?)

Rejecting Christ is Eternal Sin.

The Sinner Lives Forever.

The Sinner Sins Forever.

Progressive Nature of Moral Life.

The Sinner is to be Punished Forever.

Section III. Elements in Eternal Punishment

The Place of Eternal Punishment.

Material Elements Associated with Eternal Punishment.

Historical Interpretation.

Worms and Fire.

Fire and Brimstone.

The Presence of Christ the Agency of Torment.

Rest in God’s Love.

Section IV. Conclusion

Divine Vengeance and Mercy.

The Presence of God.

Section I.—Introduction

Reason for this Thesis

To many of those who have come to me with their problems, the Christian doctrine of Eternal Punishment is a great stumbling block. In most cases the cause of this situation is a misunderstanding of the actual teaching of the Scriptures on the subject, together with an accretion of medieval ideas which are without Scriptural support. I have been led,—logically, I believe, but also as a reaction from the problems which have been brought to me,—to believe that God’s love can be shown to great advantage by an explanation of His discipline of His creatures. It is for the purpose of winning to Christ, strengthening, and comforting those of my flock to whom this doctrine is troublesome, that I have written this thesis, and for the same purpose that I now lay it before the wider circle of readers of Bibliotheca Sacra.

My principal thesis is that Eternal Punishment is the wages of nothing less than the eternal sin of finally rejecting Christ, and that the presence of Christ Himself makes eternal punishment what it is for those who thus hate Him. Though our hearts ache that any should refuse our Saviour, and “the love of Christ compels us” to do all in our power to prevent them from so doing, yet we must rest eventualities with the God of love and also of justice whom we see revealed in Jesus Christ.

While writing this paragraph, and preparing to go over my nearly finished manuscript again, a picture is brought into my study, one which I have long loved, and a copy of which I have just purchased, “Christ at Gethsemane.” As I study that tense figure, the hands, and the face, and realize a little of what Gethsemane meant, and still means to Him, I feel more than ever that I must “tell everybody to trust Jesus.” Surely He who did so much to save, can be trusted to punish even our own, if He finds it necessary. The disciples slept while He prayed, and He forgave them that. They forsook Him, and He forgave them that. Then “He was taken from prison and from judgment” and crucified, and He forgave them that also. He will forgive anything, but if men refuse to be forgiven, and,—O the shame of it! some men do refuse,—He cannot cease to be what He is. His very presence, and the look of His face will be torment to those who refuse Him.

I frequently tell those who ask about their relatives who have died: (1) That only God knows whether or not they may possibly have accepted Christ in terms we have not understood; no man is to judge (see p. 444); (2) That they are not lost unless they have rejected the love of Christ (Mk. 9:40) (see p. 444); and (3) That in that case their punishment will be to live somewhere in God’s orderly moral universe “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb (Rev. 14:10) (see p. 407). If even the members of our own families should so “love darkness rather than light” that the presence of our Saviour is torment to them, then our regret would be that they would grieve Him, and not that they must continue to live in sight of His presence.

I would like so to present this doctrine that all to whom I minister would be moved to love the Lord more deeply, and trust Him more fully.

The Right and Duty of Inquiry

It is my purpose to set forth an interpretation of the doctrine of eternal punishment which is strictly in accordance with the historical meaning of the Scriptures, and yet quite different in some respects from the common view of many Christian people of today. We must therefore, first of all, establish our right to inquire into the subject, and explain the basis of our inquiry.

There is a verse in the fourth chapter of Mark which must arrest the attention of one who reads it in Greek, partly because of the simple thought, and partly because of the shade of difference between the original meaning and the translations of the common version. It reads as follows (Mark 4:22):”For there is nothing hidden, but in order that it may be revealed; nor covered up, but in order that it may come into plain sight.” There is also a verse in the first chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy which somehow startles one into wide awake attention (1 Tim. 1:7):”God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and of a sound mind.” The current of thought which flows through these two verses when they are put in contact with each other is, that God wants men to think; and that he wants men to inquire into his ways of dealing with them, with a view to arriving at an understanding. God gives his children the ‘spirit of a sound mind,” and leaves some things obscure before their view in order that their attention may be drawn, and, in consecrated Spirit-guided study, they may come to know Him better.

Intellectual Honesty

It is un-Protestant and un-Christian to forbid inquiry into the problems of religious thought. Faith is more than “intellectuation,” but if it be based upon a refusal to think, it is not the “Faith of our fathers.” Intellectual laziness, or fear, or quibbling, is a form of intellectual dishonesty, and is incompatible with Christian faith. The laws of logic or truth, as well as the laws of ethics and aesthetics, righteousness and beauty, are clarified, not fogged, by the Holy Spirit of God Who dwells in the hearts and minds of believers.

Questioning in Honesty

It is Christian to ask questions in honesty. The world is full of caviling and quibbling. Red Bolshevism asks its questions of the social order for selfish and dishonest ends. The Devil’s men will always endeavor to make the air cloudy with questions and criticisms of all that is good and right, like football players who throw dust into the eyes of their opponents. On the other hand, when men begin to ask honest questions, the soil is ready for the Son of Man to sow the good seed of the Word into the hearts of those who ask. ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you,” is the promise of Him Who hath given us “the spirit of a sound mind,” and hath hidden nothing “but in order that it might be made plain.”

Questioning in Faith

It is Christian to ask questions in faith. Agnosticism asks its questions without faith, even with the determination that there shall be no answer. We cannot prove anything to a doubter. The air that we breathe may be doubted, and the food that we eat. Many persons claim to doubt the reality of the material universe (though they act as though they believed in it). There have been some who have climbed to such heights of intellectual hum-buggery that they have doubted the existence of sin and misery in this world, while others have doubted the promise of glory in the next. It is inevitable that the questioner without faith, determined that there is no answer to his question, shall find only emptiness and despair: for “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them for they are spiritually discerned”; and, “He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” The question asked without faith will never find an answer.

“What is faith?”

The best statement is the one which the Lord Jesus accepted from the father of the demoniac boy: “Lord, I believe! Help Thou mine unbelief!” I am glad that Jesus accepted that as an expression of faith. Mine is often no stronger. It is the will to believe, the desire, honest and burning, to find the true answer, which constitutes the faith necessary when a Christian would ask a religious question.

Questioning in Reverence

It is Christian to ask questions in reverence. Human philosophy has rarely been reverent; more often it has been, in worldly language, “rude,” and “unmannerly,” and in the language of Zion, “blasphemous.” Men as good as we, have in the past lived as intensely, done as nobly, and thought as clearly. The best men of the centuries past have discovered for themselves and for those for whom they lived, that the Bible is the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It is rude, barbarous, blasphemous, to set their conclusions carelessly aside, as some now do. Moreover, there is an event in the story of man around which the scientific historians of our age stand in blank astonishment, the advent of the incarnate person of God. This astonishment is shown by the great volume of literature explaining, or explaining away, the facts connected with the life, and especially the resurrection of Jesus. A learned man said to me not long ago, “I believe something must have happened, but I don’t know what it was.” The words of Prof. Williston Walker (A History of the Christian Church, 1918, p. 21) are expressive, I believe, of the perplexity about Jesus felt by many historians who doubt His deity. “What Jesus taught and did gained immense significance from the conviction of His disciples that His death was not the end—from the resurrection faith. The how of this conviction is one of the most puzzling of historical problems. The fact of this conviction is unquestionable.” In view of the unquestioned facts connected with the life of Jesus, to say nothing of the rest of the record which, though questioned by unbelieving scholars, seems perfectly reliable to the majority of Christian people, it shows crudeness and loose thinking for men to disregard utterly the significance of what He said, what He did, and what He was.

In honesty, in faith, and in reverence, therefore, we set forth the question, What is the nature of eternal punishment? We want to know Him better, and His way of dealing with men. I believe that He has an answer which He wants us to find out. We must approach this study with open mind, of course, but also with reverent confidence, fully expecting that the Bible will be vindicated in authority and will prove to be the guide to the solution of this problem.

Section II.—Sin, The Reason For Eternal Punishment

The reason for eternal punishment is sin. “God cannot look upon sin with any degree of allowance.” “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Men nowadays have their eyes so much upon man and human achievement that they forget to look up to God. Forgetting him, they forget also what true holiness is. Isaiah, Paul, Augustine and Luther, more than most men, realized their personal sinfulness. This consciousness of sin was not due to an outwardly corrupt life, for Paul said that he was “as touching the law, blameless.” It was due to the fact that these men more than most others realized the presence of God. Think of the ineffable, unapproachable majesty of His absolute holiness! “Our God is a consuming fire!” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” (Heb. 10:31). If we could only realize that we are in the holy presence of God, we should all say with Isaiah, “Woe is me, for I am undone! because I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of Hosts” (Isa. 6:5). If men would think more upon the holiness of God, they would, in their conscience-stricken misery, bow before His righteous judgments, acknowledging that “all their righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6), and that whatever punishment is meted out to them is more than deserved by the guilt of their wrong doing.

Definition and Analysis of Sin

Everyone knows what sin is from experience with his own conscience; and yet, when it comes to a matter of systematic statement of the doctrine of sin, there is much confusion in the use of the term. Sin has been variously defined as “Human Error,” “The disturbing element between man and God,” “Any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” “Coming short of our standard, which is Christ” (II Cor. 10:12; Eph. 4:13), and “Anything which absolutely ought not to be.” This last definition was given by the late Prof. James Orr in his book “God’s Image in Man,” and is probably as satisfactory as any definition we are likely to find. I believe, however, that an analysis of the various kinds of sin will be more helpful than a definition of sin in general. Indeed, it seems to me that proper recognition of the different kinds of sin would do away with much of the controversy which has divided earnest Christian people. “Eradication of Sin,” “Original Sin,” “Total Depravity,” and various allied subjects would be greatly illuminated by such an analysis. Pope’s perhaps too caustic couplet illustrates the constant need of careful distinctions in the use of terms.

“Wits, like fools, at war upon a name,
As often have no meaning, as the same.”

We will discuss three different kinds of sin—Sin and Heredity, Particular Sins, and Eternal Sin.

Sin Manifest Through Heredity Not The Reason For Eternal Punishment

Sin in heredity is spoken of in a variety of ways in the Scripture, sometimes as though it were an entity, a spreading stuff, and sometimes almost as though personified. Sometimes it is likened to an hereditary disease affecting the whole race, the first cases of which disease were to be found with the first human beings. To come to a definition of sin thus manifested which will be harmonious with all the Scripture references on the subject, we should say that it is the effects of sin on posterity, or the hereditary evil in the world.

Sociologists classify hereditary factors in two groups, those pertaining to social heredity and those pertaining to physiological heredity. Physiological heredity includes only those factors which are transmitted to the individual in the actual germ cells from which he springs. All other factors, including pre-natal influences, and even the influences (such as immunity from certain diseases, which are carried by the mother’s blood circulating in the veins of the babe) are classed as social heredity. One must notice carefully that the word “social” is not used here in its ordinary sense.

Sin In Social Heredity

All the goodness and beauty and truth in the world, and they do certainly abound, are due doubtless to the fact that in the providence of God the sins of the race have been partially restrained and their evil effects averted. But, however pleasant the world may be, the fact remains that every individual comes into a world which has been polluted by his ancestors and their neighbors. God gives us much happiness in this life; but compared with what He set before us and desired for us, this is a poor, spoiled world.

The great evils in the world, inherited from the past, are “putrifying sores,” healed just enough over the surface so that polite society may ignore them, or refrain from mentioning them. Nevertheless their poison infects every individual of the entire social order. Sometimes it almost seems that clean living and moral chastity are but a thin tissue covering a ghastly ulcer. I have lived for weeks at a time in the same room, or barracks, with men who did not even wear the mask of decency. Their morning greeting was a licentious jest. Their speech all day was lewd and blasphemous. Their last word at night was of some unclean thing. Every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). I have seen Christian men living in such an environment, struggling against its insidious evils, “fighting the good fight of faith,” and by the grace of God the sinews of their souls were strengthened so that they stood out as great spiritual giants in the midst of moral pigmies. Sin is everywhere in the social order. It leers at us from billboards, and flirts with us from the stage and the screen. Sin stands at every business man’s elbow, and is present on every social occasion, even in our homes. The social heredity of sin is a vast ocean across the path of every child born into the world. Every voyager’s life is, without his intent, even sometimes without his consent, ventured upon a sea of evil. Many, many ships with God’s help cross in peace and safety and happiness; but we cannot deny that many ships are lost. The fact of the social heredity of sin cannot be denied. We may defer the difficult question of accountability until after we have discussed physiological heredity.

Sin In Physiological Heredity

It is my humble opinion, with which many will doubtless disagree, that sin is not transmitted by what should properly be called physiological heredity. I would state frankly that my argument on this point is not absolutely essential to the purpose of this thesis, and I hope that those who do not agree with me here, may, as is entirely consistent, agree in the main thought. The most important point to be made in discussing heredity is not the means whereby the hereditary effect of sin is transmitted, but the fact that it is a terrible reality. I believe, nevertheless, that the non-physiological character of its transmission is an important and illuminating truth, explaining a number of problems otherwise very difficult.

Heredity Of Acquired Characteristics

Biologists have long been investigating the question of the transmission of acquired characteristics. It might almost be admitted that scientists have sought to prove that acquired characteristics of individuals are transmitted to their offspring. Such a conclusion would be wonderfully corroborative of the biological theories popularly held at the present time. But there is no evidence forthcoming to substantiate the theory. We cannot, of course, go into the details of the biological argument. The reader is referred to the article on Heredity by Dr. P. C. Mitchell in the Encyclopaedia Britanica (Vol. 13. See section on Acquired Characters, p. 353). There are, I am told, very few biologists of repute in the world nowadays who would disagree with the views there expressed. Dr. Mitchell says in brief that there is no evidence for the heredity of acquired characteristics. Benjamin Kidd, in his book, The Science of Power, describes in a remarkable way the power of social heredity. He demonstrates that even certain universal characteristics of species, such as the food and shelter instincts of wild birds, are not physiologically hereditary as has been supposed, but are acquired by each individual for himself by imitation and other influences from environment.

Many diseases which used to be considered physiologically hereditary are now known to be otherwise. The term “congenital” is now applied to such diseases as are communicable by pre-natal contact. Tuberculosis, leprosy and venereal diseases, are not necessarily hereditary. If there is no pre-natal contact with actually diseased tissue, the child is born clean. Sociologists are coming more to realize that the physiological heredity of every child is more than likely to be good, no matter what the home may be. This statement is intended to apply, of course, to cases where there is no congenital disease, where the child is sufficiently nourished and uninjured during the pre-natal period, and where it may be protected from birth from the evils of its environment. The following quotation from the article on “Heredity” in the Encyclopedia of Social Reform (1910) is very significant:

“In a recent letter Mr. S. Loring Brace, secretary of the Children’s Aid Society of New York, said: So far as we can judge, inheritance does not figure in the problem. . . . This society has placed 84,000 children in homes since it began its work forty years ago, and it is our experience that no matter what the parents may be, if the child is taken at an age so early that it has not yet understood the wickedness about, if placed in a country home with kind and judicious adopted parents, it is almost certain to do well. . . . But if the child is not transplanted early enough, then there are bad examples, bad habits, and knowledge of evil ways to contend against.”

Benjamin Kidd (Science of Power) tells of reading a novel in which a godly Bishop adopted at birth three children of immoral parents. As the children grew to maturity, they all became criminals, because of the “blood” of their immoral parents. Kidd argues that this story is not true to life. The children reared in the bishop’s home would have had practically the same probability of becoming good men and women as the bishop’s own children would have had.

Other circumstances than physiological heredity must be taken into account in considering the familiar story of the Juke family. What the results would have been, if one of the Jukes had been placed in a godly home at birth, instead of being left to the polluted social heredity of his ancestors, would be quite another story. Conversely, if a child of the finest American lineage had been adopted at birth by the Jukes, it is questionable whether he would be recognizable as belonging to a line of distinguished statesmen (See Encyclopedia of Social Reform, Art. “Heredity”).

The sins of the race are sociologically, not physiologically transmitted. Australia was originally populated by criminals exported from Great Britain, but where do you find a finer people than in Australia to-day? Our southern mountains were populated by Scotch Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch, the finest stocks in the world, yet many have sunk very low. But, again, this acquired characteristic is not physiologically transmitted, for the children of the southern mountains show themselves today to be capable of the highest moral and intellectual development, when given opportunity.

Is Sin An Acquired Characteristic?

There are many, however, who question the correctness of our treating any phase of sin as an acquired characteristic. First, they argue, sin is universal in the race, and therefore a physiological characteristic. I would be the first to emphasize the universality of sin. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But I argue that universality does not prove any characteristic to be physiologically hereditary, if we have any evidence to the contrary. Benamin Kidd, in the work referred to above, tells how the previously universal characteristics of certain species of birds, were radically changed in a single generation, although it was supposed that these characteristics were based on physiological necessity. Scientists have transplanted Alpine flowers to low valley regions, and in one generation have produced radical changes in the hitherto universal characteristics of the flowers. We have no more evidence from universality to prove that sin is physiologically hereditary in the human race, than we have, for example, to prove that this is the case with the universal disease of catarrh.

In the account of the fall of man, in Genesis, everything seems to point to sin as an acquired characteristic. The first act of disobedience was the voluntary, conscious act of intelligent beings. As a result of this act, man became conscious of disharmony with God, he realized his nakedness, and hid from God’s presence. Thus by sinning he acquired the characteristic of sinfulness. He knew good and evil now, by having committed evil. He did not change the physiology of his posterity, but he did change their sociology. God found it necessary to pronounce a fourfold curse, against the Serpent, against the woman, against the man, and against the ground. The sin of Adam, and also the curse resulting from that sin, have affected the life of every human being. “By one man sin entered into the world” (Rom. 5:12).

The Human Species Not Morally Changed

If the curse of God involved so radical a change in the physiological heredity of the race, that man after the fall is a different species from man before the fall, it would mean nothing to us that Adam was created in innocence. He, in that case, was a different kind of moral creature then from what we are now, and God by a new creative act (not by a logical moral process) made a sinful race. But this is not so. Neither the sin of man, nor the curse of God, implies anything but a logical moral process in the dealings of God with man. Flowers transplanted from the Alps to low land valleys simply show that their species is capable of showing different characteristics in a different habitat. Adam, by sinning when tempted, proved that man is capable of sinning when tempted. Christ by resisting all temptation, proved that man was capable in the garden of Eden, if he would, of resisting temptation by the power of God. It seems to me quite necessary as well as proper for our understanding of God’s dealing with the race, to maintain, that though all are made sinful by man’s first sin, yet the species was not changed. The effects of Adam’s sin upon his posterity are very evident on the face of the Genesis account. Sin came “into the world.” All the children of Adam were made sinful. Some, like Abel, fought against sin and used the means of grace which God provided. Others, like Cain, and later Lamech, evidently went on adding to the sinfulness of the world, by the perfectly obvious processes of social heredity.

Is Our Method Of Classification Correct?

If some have up to this point been questioning the validity of our classification of hereditary matters as either social or physiological, we would reply that, of course, any classification of anything must be partly arbitrary: the personal equation enters. This classification seems to be the most helpful for our present discussion. I have tried to hold closely to my definition (which is, of course, to a like extent arbitrary) that all factors in heredity which cannot be ascribed to the germ cells from which individuals spring, are social and not physiological. This classification is valuable chiefly because only the germ cell seems to determine the species. We are fundamentally and essentially of the same species with Adam before the fall, and with Christ in His incarnation. Sin did not take away any faculty of the soul, nor does redemption add any. Christ came to take away that which, though found in every member of the race, from the fall, till the coming of the kingdom of God, when His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven, yet thank God!—is not essential to the humanity which He created and will restore.

The Sinless Humanity Of Christ

What was, indeed, the physiological heredity of Christ? It is fundamental to Christian faith that He was fully human as well as perfectly divine, and that withal, He was perfectly sinless. Now, if the essential physiological heredity of the race is sinful, then Christ would be sinful, if human, and not human, if sinless. This dilemma is inevitable. The doctrines of the solidarity of the race with Adam in his innocence and with Christ in His holiness, and, the doctrines of the sinlessness and yet the true humanity of Christ, are consistent only if we assume that hereditary sin is not transmitted physiologically but socially. Paul, who teaches clearly that all men are sinful by nature (see the following paragraphs), states (Rom. 5:14) that some men “Had not sinned after the likeness of Adam’s transgression.” If this refers, as it seems to me that it does, to the spiritual and moral likeness of Adam’s sin, open conscious disobedience of God’s express command, then the sin of the men Paul here refers to is not physiologically inherited from Adam, for it is not morally of the same kind.

Hereditary Sin And The Original Nature Of The Individual Soul

The classification of hereditary factors which we have adopted has nothing to do with the various theories as to the double, treble, or quadruple nature of man. The whole man, body, soul, mind, spirit, strength, and all, according to the “traducian” theory of the origin of the soul, is derived by divinely ordained processes from the germ cells of his parents. The whole man is also affected and modified from the moment of conception till death, by the influences from the sinful world. Our contention is that the social heredity in which the individual develops, not the physiology of the germ cells, is the means by which hereditary sin is transmitted to the whole nature of man. If we adopt the “immediate creation” theory of the origin of the soul, the origin of each soul is ascribed to a separate creative act of God. In this case we surely cannot ascribe the sinfulness of every human soul to God’s creative act, but must ascribe it to the social heredity into which every soul is born. I can find no fact of life, nor any teaching of Scripture to prove that the individual inherits sin in any other way than by what we have called social heredity.

Reality Of Hereditary Sin

In perfect harmony with the conclusion of the above paragraph, is the fact that the heredity of sin is a terrible reality, exerting a blighting influence upon every human individual. Someone will say that the conclusion expressed above tends to contradict the scriptural doctrine of “original sin.” This I deny. It is frankly my position that if the chromatin of the germ cell from which a normal individual of today may spring, could be developed in an environment like the garden of Eden, the resulting individual would have just as good a chance of escaping actual personal transgression as had Adam and Eve (see note on Isa. 65:17–25, p. 425). But,—and this is the crux of the whole matter,—this supposition is for us in this age, purely hypothetical. Eden was lost, when our first parents committed sin. We cannot even imagine anyone being kept wholly free from the evil of this world, except by a miracle. Withdrawing into a cloister would be utterly inadequate, and would itself be a sin against the evident plan of God for our lives.

By His supernatural power, doubtless supplemented by and superseding natural processes, God created our first parents and kept them in innocence until such time as their mature wills should be tested by temptation. By a like supernatural and miraculous act, supplemented by natural processes, God brought His Son into the world, caused Him to spring actually from humanity, yet kept Him without hereditary sin, the Second Adam, until such time as He should be “tempted in all points like as we are tempted” (Heb. 4:15).1 The first parents of the race, and the Lord Jesus Christ, are the only historical persons of whom we know2 who were not polluted to a greater or less degree in their entire nature by hereditary evil, before they reached the age of discretion.

Hereditary Sin Implied In Scripture

All Scripture represents the heredity of sin as an awful reality. God’s words addressed to Cain (Gen. 4:7) suggest that sin, which before the fall of Adam had not existed in the world, was now ubiquitous. “Sin (like an evil beast of prey seeking to devour) lieth at the door.” The universality of sin is expressed by Paul in different words (Rom. 8:22), “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” (Rom. 3:23):”For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The best interpretation of these passages of Scripture involves necessarily the fact of the universal heredity of sin.

Hereditary Sin Expressly Taught

Not only is the heredity of sin implied, it is positively taught in numerous places. Paul says (Rom. 5:12): “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned.” The same thought is repeated frequently. (Rom. 5:18, 19):”Through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, . . . ” (Eph. 2:3), “. . . we . . .  were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest: . . . ” (1 Cor. 15:22): ” . . . in Adam all die . . . ” We find the same thought in the oft quoted verse of the fifty-first Psalm. (Ps. 51:5): “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

This hereditary sin of the world affects the whole being, the very nature of every member of the human family. The Rev. Prof. Joseph Kyle, D.D., LL.D., quotes Joseph Cook as follows (Bibliotheca Sacra, July, 1922): “Joseph Cook was wont to say that a clock might be made of the finest materials, and be the product of the finest workmanship but if in the adjustment of its delicate parts there was an error, or if some disorder had overtaken its mechanism, so that it would not keep time, that it was “totally depraved” as a clock. Kyle goes on to say, “Man was made in the image of God—the only creature that shares this likeness—was made to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever in fellowship to which no other creature may aspire; but since these faculties and capacities which give him likeness to God and make such fellowship possible have been subjected to sin’s power to disorder, he cannot in his natural state serve the purpose of his Creator.” The fearful disease of sin eats from within as well as from without. It is the saddest day in the life of a man when he discovers that his own inward nature is going out in response after the degrading temptations of his environment. Yet so subtle is the hereditary evil of the world that all of us, the reputable and the fallen, inevitably make this discovery. Isaiah, the prophet of God, not guilty so far as we know of any gross immorality, says (Isa. 6:5): “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of Hosts.” Jeremiah well knew the hold which sin gains on the nature of man (Jer. 17:9):”The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: Who can know it?” But it is in the words of Paul that we find the best available description of hereditary sinfulness as it affects the natural human heart. He says (1 Cor. 2:14):”The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged.” The consciousness of innate sinfulness was very keen in Paul’s experience, giving rise to such passages as the following (Rom. 7:18–20):”For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not. For the good which I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I practice. But if what I would not, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me.” (Rom. 7:24 (Weymouth):”Unhappy man that I am! who will rescue me from this death-burdened body?” Paul was gloriously conscious of victory over all sin through Christ, but he is foremost among those who recognize the reality of hereditary sinfulness, as well as of all other forms of sin.

We have now had a brief view of the facts concerning hereditary sin. We know full well from our own observations that this phase of evil operates on every individual long before birth, and continues so to operate until he passes away from this life, rendering all sinful in a greater or less degree, and making human nature in its totality, and in its every part, imperfect, sinful.

Accountability For Hereditary Sin

I hope to prove from the Scripture that this hereditary result of sin is not in any sense the ground for eternal punishment, and that God does not hold us accountable for it. We will first study the Scripture which seems to some to teach our accountability for hereditary sin, afterward we will take up the Scripture which clearly teaches the opposite.

One of the greatest truths of the Bible is that given as the reason for the second commandment (Ex. 20:5b, 6):”For I, Jehovah thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing loving kindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.” The same commandment is repeated in Deut. 5:9. The same thought is expressed in the words of Jehovah in Moses’ vision recorded in Ex. 34:6, 7, and in Moses’ words to Jehovah recorded in Num. 14:18. Four times in the Pentateuch is it definitely stated that God visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. This statement is repeatedly found to be true in our human experience. The sins of the fathers do most certainly affect the lives of the children. This visiting upon us of the sins of our ancestors is not a matter of punishment, but a merciful provision of God’s providence, warning us from sin and turning us unto righteousness. We are all familiar with the lives of men who have seen the results of their fathers’ sins in their own lives, and have by this visitation been kept from these sins themselves. In the McAuley Water Street Mission just the other night I heard a man tell how his son was kept from drink and influenced to become a Christian by the bad example of the father. Later the boy led the man to Christ.

I am thankful to say that the Scripture clearly teaches that the visitation of hereditary sin upon posterity is not for punishment, and does not in any sense indicate that God holds us accountable for our inherited sin. The visitation is a merciful provision of providence for the purpose of warning and correcting, not punishing. Jeremiah and Ezekiel are the two great Biblical exponents of individual accountability to God. (Jer. 31:29, 30):”In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” (Ezek. 18:1–4):”The word of Jehovah came unto me again saying, What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” What clearer language could there be to deny present human accountability for hereditary sin. Scripture is not at all inconsistent with itself. Hereditary sin is certainly visited upon us, as a gracious providential means of warning and discipline, that we may be turned to the Saviour, and grow in Him into Christian character. But we are not now accountable for it, any more than our mouths are puckered if our parents eat green fruit. We shall develop later the thought that we are accountable, if we refuse God’s remedy for hereditary sin; but we are not accountable for it as such.

God’s Remedy For Hereditary Sin

It was an important part of the work of Christ in his incarnation to take away all the curse of hereditary sin. This type of sin is just as evil as voluntary sin; as a congenital disease is just as loathsome as though it were contracted by the deliberate act of the afflicted person. Hereditary sin must be reckoned with and atoned for in the providence of God just as truly as any other kind of sin. We cannot here discuss the method, but we shall call attention to the fact, that the atonement accomplished by Christ is God’s remedy for this, as for all other sin.

(Rom. 5:18, 19):”So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation, even so through one act of righteousness the free gifts came unto all men to justification of life. For as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of one shall the many be made righteous.” (1 Cor. 15:22):”For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The first clauses of these two passages of Scripture (quoted previously to show the reality of the heredity of sin) give the condition of all mankind as we should have been, if Christ had not come, or rather, if the atonement of Christ had not been in the plan of God “from the foundation of the world” (see Eph. 1:4, Rev. 13:8 and 17:8). This part of the truth, incomplete in itself, is in line with Paul’s statement that, “we were by nature children of wrath.” The great point for us to emphasize in this connection, is not that we should have been condemned as unclean, if it had not been for the person and work of Christ God would never have permitted the curse of hereditary sin to spread had He not planned beforehand for the cure. The great fact for us to emphasize is that Christ has taken away all the curse of hereditary sin. “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” I take this to mean, and I can see no other possible interpretation, that the atonement of Christ takes away all3 the curse of hereditary sin. The world is corrupted by the wreckage of the past, but this hereditary sin is not the reason for eternal punishment.

“In the cross of Christ I glory
     Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
     Gathers ‘round its head sublime.”

Hereditary Sin To Be Repented Of

I hope that nothing said here with regard to accountability for hereditary sin will obscure the necessity for repentance from it. God’s remedy for our condition includes “repentance unto salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10) that is not even a saved soul may rest satisfied in the hereditary influence of sin. If we do not use this, His prescribed remedy, we are “guilty of eternal sin” (Mk. 3:29) (see section on eternal sin). In Psalm fifty-one the writer laments the fact of hereditary sin (vs. 5):”Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” The next two verses express his great repentance, his prayer for cleansing, and his assurance that he will be cleansed. In these words many a devout soul has found relief from his inborn corruption: “Behold Thou desireth truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part Thou wilt make me to know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

Particular Sins Not Alone Nor In Themselves The Reason For Eternal Punishment

Man will always look on the “outward appearance,” but “God looketh on the heart.” After nineteen centuries of Christian preaching, it is still necessary for us to explain to the world that God does not judge the children of men according to the particular sins which they have committed, nor according to the particular good deeds which they have done. The popular understanding of Christian teaching is well expressed in Kipling’s lines concerning the future life:

“Those who were good shall be happy,
They shall sit in a golden chair.”

But, “being good,” except in a special inward sense of the words, is not. according to the Scripture, what admits one to a state of happiness after death; and we would search the Scriptures in vain to prove that anyone will ever be eternally punished, solely because of the individual or collective sins which he has committed. This is not to say that deeds do not count. We are responsible to God for “the deeds done in the body,” for “every idle word,” “everyone of us must give an account of himself to God.” Particular sins drive man from Eden, ruin his happiness, and break his fellowship with God. Our argument relates to Eternal Punishment, to which no one will be condemned merely because he has lost his way in the labyrinth of the moral law. When John prophetically sees the unbelieving dead judged “out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works,” he notes that not until it is found by opening the “Book of Life” that they have rejected Christ, will they be condemned to eternal punishment.

Also, a righteousness of good deeds is incomplete. Christ said of the best moralists of his day that they were “whited sepulchres,” and that harlots were nearer to finding an entrance to the kingdom of God than they. The only sense in which particular sins could be said to be the reason for eternal punishment is that they are the fruit of a far more deadly root of sin, which we will discuss later (see Eternal Sin).

Sinlessness Without Christ?

The converse of the proposition that we are to be punished simply for the sins which we have committed, is that if anyone even without Christ should live a perfect life, free from hereditary and particular sins, he would then be eligible to all the happiness of heaven. We would say in opposition to such a position: (1) That it is purely hypothetical. No one has ever lived such a life (Rom. 3:10). (2) Christ tells us clearly (Lk. 17:10) that when we are perfectly good, we are still “unprofitable servants.” Hypothetically one would be exempt from punishment, but never worthy of adoption into the household of God. (3) To live perfectly without Christ is in itself a contradiction. A good man will love Christ, only an evil man will reject him. The sin of rejecting Christ would ruin every perfection.

Classification Of Particular Sins

With these preliminary remarks on the subject of Particular Sins, we must proceed to a more careful analysis. There are two classes of particular sins, voluntary, and involuntary. That the moral difference between these classes is great, will readily be recognized.

Involuntary Sins

Many of the phenomena which appeared in our discussion of hereditary sin appear also in the discussion of involuntary particular sins though treated from a different viewpoint. For convenience we classify under the former heading the effects of sin upon posterity, while under the latter heading we classify the sinful acts which an individual performs without conscious evil purpose. These acts are largely due to two causes, which we have called hereditary sin and ignorance.

The problem of involuntary sin is better stated in the seventh chapter of Romans, perhaps, than anywhere else. “But if what I would not, I do,” says Paul, “I consent unto the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me.”

I desire to put forth two conclusions with regard to involuntary sin; first, it is not the reason for eternal punishment; and second, it is nevertheless really sin which requires Christ’s atonement and man’s repentance.

Involuntary Sin, Not The Reason For Eternal Punishment

Someone has well said that atonement is not the matter of law, or of commerce, which our figures of speech almost seem to make it, but a matter of dealing with the Heavenly Father; and we must realize how desirous God is of putting away sin in order to become our Father in the spiritual relationship which that term ought to imply. In this spirit, trying to win the offspring of God (Acts 17:28) by creation to become the sons of God by regeneration, Paul announced to the Athenians (Acts 17:30), “The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent.” In this same vein of thought he wrote “but where there is no law, neither is there transgression” (Rom. 4:15):And again more explicitly he wrote, “for until the law, sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed where there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).

Jesus said in one of his parables (Lk. 12:47, 48) that the servant who sins in ignorance is to be “beaten with few stripes.” The context makes it clear that this is not a positive statement that he shall be beaten, though not severely, but a negative statement that he shall not be beaten with many stripes as shall the servant who sins consciously. If honestly we can say with Paul concerning our involuntary sins, “It is no more I that do it,” we will not be punished at all by our Heavenly Father, though we may be corrected by His Fatherly hand.

This conclusion is further borne out by the words of Jesus to the Pharisees on one occasion (Jn. 9:41):”If ye were blind, ye would have no sin, but now ye say, We see, your sin remaineth.” We find also in the farewell discourse the following words, “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no excuse for their sin.” This Scripture makes clear our first proposition stated above, that involuntary sin is not the reason for eternal punishment.

Involuntary Sin To Be Repented Of

Involuntary sin is sin nevertheless, because it is that which “absolutely ought not to be.” For it the atonement is effective, and from it we must repent. It was provided in the Old Testament law that atonement must be made for sins which were committed “unwittingly” (Lev. 22:14). The very simple case of an apology for an accidental injury to one’s friend, illustrates the necessity for repentance from involuntary sin. If one does not apologize in such a case, he virtually gives his voluntary approval to what he has done. The accidents of birth and environment will make absolutely no difference before the Throne of God. This world is a handicap race, and the Lord knows exactly under what weights and disadvantages He has permitted each runner to be caused to labor on. “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” But when relief from burdens, forgiveness of all sins, is freely offered, we are certainly blameworthy, if we do not repent and avail ourselves of the means of grace which are offered to us. We must not forget that though God “winked at the times of ignorance,” He “Now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.”

Voluntary Sins, Not The Reason For Eternal Punishment

When every possible excuse has been made with regard to hereditary and involuntary sin, there yet remains the appalling fact of voluntary sin, for which each individual is responsible to God. In my pastoral experience I have met with two principle opponents of the idea of moral responsibility for voluntary sins. They are on the one hand Determinism or Mechanism, and on the other a misunderstanding of the Scriptural doctrine of Predestination. It is obviously out of the question to give here anything like a full discussion of these two subjects. I can give conclusions only, leaving arguments to be understood.

Determinism, Or Mechanism

The Mechanistic view of the world has added wonderfully to scientific advancement. By this view, we have come to the conclusion of the universality of law and order, cause and effect. The opposite view is commonly called Vitalism. Now the strength of Vitalism, it seems to me, is in its minimum claims. Let as much as possible be admitted to be mechanical in the world, but let us never give up the essential moral freedom of personal beings, that is, of God and of men. My first argument against Mechanism as applied to all acts of men would be that men do actually behave differently when they believe that their acts are determined otherwise than by their personal moral volition, which proves, of course, that volition is of force in human action. Mohammedans, for example, are known to give fatalism as an excuse for crime. My second argument would be that we are conscious immediately of our choices, especially our moral choices. One has a logical right to reply to the arguments of Mechanists in the words of the Psalmist, “I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.”


Just recently a young man sat in my study and tried, by an erroneous interpretation of the doctrine of Predestination, to make God responsible for all the evil in his life. “If God is Sovereign, if He made all things, and rules all things, He is therefore,” said my friend, “responsible for all the evil in the world, and for all the sin in an individual life.” My reply is as follows:

(1) There is much more in the Scripture about man’s moral responsibility for sin, than there is about predestination. The first word of the Gospel, the first word of John the Baptist, and the first word of Jesus, is “Repent,” a word which necessarily implies our moral freedom and ability to repent. Predestination and free moral responsibility are not really conflicting doctrines, but, if they seem to us to be conflicting, yet both are clearly taught in the Scripture, and our attitude of mind should be that of waiting for more light on the subject, not giving up either doctrine for the sake of the other.

(2) God foreknew everything, including the moral decisions of every individual, but He did not predestinate, in a compulsory sense, any sin. The following lines from Book Two of Milton’s Paradise Lost are very illuminating. In the scene God is pictured as beholding Satan’s approach to the world for the purpose of tempting man.

For man will harken to his glozing lies,
And easily transgress the sole command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall
He and his faithless progeny. Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all the Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who failed;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have given sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love,
Where only what they needs must do appeared,
Not what they would? What praise could they receive,
What pleasure I, from such obedience paid,
When Will and Reason (Reason also is Choice),
Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled,
Made passive both, and served Necessity,
Not Me? They, therefore, as to right belonged
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Their Maker, or their making, or their fate,
As if Predestination overruled
Their will, disposed by absolute decree
Or high foreknowledge. They themselves decreed
Their own revolt, not I. If I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less proved certain unforeknown.

(3) God, knowing that some would voluntarily and freely sin in open rebellion against Him, and that their sin would corrupt all the rest of mankind, yet created those whom he knew would thus sin, and permitted them to sin. With this problem (which is the problem of the real existence of God and of Sin) we are confronted every day in human experience, as well as in every portion of the Scripture. There are three alternative solutions which we may adopt: (a) to say there is no God, (b) to say there is no sin, or (c) to hold that somehow sin is overruled for the glory of God and the good of all.

This last solution is the plain teaching of the Scripture (Ps. 76:10):”Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee, The residue of wrath shalt Thou restrain” (A. R. V. Margin). Whatever sin could not be overruled for good, is restrained (Rom. 9:17, 18):”For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, for this purpose did I raise thee up, that I might show thee my power, and that my name might be published abroad in all the earth. So then He hath mercy on whom He will, and whom He will He hardeneth.” The process by which God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was not an arbitrary act of compelling Pharaoh’s will, but a moral act of forcing the issue until either Pharaoh should admit his error or “stand” to the trial until all the evidence of God’s supremacy should be presented. Similarly wherever the Gospel is preached God hardens some hearts. That is, God forces the issue of obedience to His Gospel, knowing that some will voluntarily disobey. The very acts of God by which many are saved, are the acts by which He hardens the hearts of those who will not obey (more of this later, see Eternal Sin). Paul does not think of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as merely arbitrary, for he refers to it (Rom. 9:22, 23), as “enduring with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction.” “What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction: and that He might make known the riches of His glory upon the vessels of mercy which He afore prepared unto glory?” We see here clearly that God permits, or “endures,” sin in order to fulfill some good purpose with regard to those who will voluntarily obey Him. There must be the possibility of sin, it is easy to see, in order that love may be voluntary and not mechanical. The actuality of sin also fulfills a good purpose in order that we may be moved by its horrors to deepen our voluntary love. This is not to argue that sin is good, nor to depart from our definition of sin as that which absolutely ought not to be. Doubtless the obedience of Pharaoh would have given far more glory to God than his disobedience.

We must decidedly take exception to the following rather Pantheistic lines of Pope:

“God sends not ill; if rightly understood,
     Or partial ill is universal good.”

Sin is unmitigated evil, the act of rebellion of a free moral agent against his Creator’s righteous laws. It is overruled for good, else it would not be permitted, but this good is much less than the good which would have resulted from obedience.

Moral Responsibility For Voluntary Sins

I desire here to prove two propositions which seem contradictory: (1) That we are morally accountable to God for voluntary sins; and (2) That voluntary sins do not constitute the reason for eternal punishment. I am sure the harmony between these two statements will appear as we proceed. Our moral accountability to God for voluntary sins is clearly taught in a great many passages of Scripture. I have had considerable difficulty in choosing among all the others, the passages which I will here present.

Jesus in His apocalyptic discourse (Matt. 24 and 25) describes a judgment scene in which all nations are gathered before His throne, and He judges them (the masculine plural pronoun refers necessarily to individuals. It would have to be neuter plural to refer to nations as such) according to their treatment of His “brethren.” Whatever one’s interpretation of this teaching, it cannot be denied that here we have a judgment whose basis is works on the one hand, and neglected works on the other hand.

In the first two chapters of Romans, Paul establishes beyond a question the moral responsibility of Jew and Gentile for sin. We have such sentences as the following: Rom. 1:32 (sinful persons) “who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practice them.” Rom. 2:5, 6: “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his works.” In John’s great description of the judgment before the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11–15), it is stated that “the dead were judged out of the things written in the books, according to their works,” and again, “they were judged every man according to their works.” A little later we read the words of Jesus (Rev. 22:12), “Behold I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to each man according as his work is.”

“Works” Regarded As Indication Of Faith In Christ

I believe that the above Scripture abundantly establishes our moral responsibility for voluntary sins. It is the basis on which men shall be judged before God. I must now hasten to add that “works” (I use the term “works” to refer to voluntary acts, whether sinful or good) are not in and of themselves the basis of divine judgment, but works considered as an indication of our moral reaction toward Christ. We are not saved, or lost, by “works” as such. “By grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory” (Eph. 2:8, 9). Nevertheless, this faith must be fruitful, or God will have to judge it non-existent. “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, He taketh it away” (Jn. 15:2). “Faith, if it have no works, is dead in itself” (Jas. 2:17).

In the judgment scene described in the 25th chapter of Matthew, though works are the basis of the judgment, yet, it is positively stated that these works are considered as an indication of the moral or spiritual reaction of the individual to Christ. “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me” (Matt. 25:45, see below, discussion of the unevangelized).

No one could doubt that for Paul, the real basis of God’s judgment, underlying that of works, is faith in Christ. As a matter of fact, everyone would be lost, if works in themselves were the basis. “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20). “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Faith in Christ is the basis of divine judgment. “But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God hath been manifested . . . even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe” (Rom. 3:21, 22). “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). This faith, however, must evidence itself in works. “For they that are after the flesh mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.” “If any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His” (Rom. 8:5, 9).

In the judgment scene from the 20th chapter of Revelation which we discussed above, there can be no doubt that works are considered merely as the indication of faith. Paul and John both conceived the Book of Life as containing the names of those who believed in Christ. John carefully notes that though those who stood before the Great White Throne were judged “according to their works,” the result was that “If any was not found written in the Book of Life, he was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15).

The reason for eternal punishment, refusal to accept Christ, will be discussed further under the heading of Eternal Sin. In support of our second proposition relating to Voluntary Sin, it must be said further that divine forgiveness through the atonement of Christ, covers all sin of every kind. “He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). All human sins are forgiven through Christ. “Whilst we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). But obviously the one sin which cannot be forgiven is the refusal to be forgiven, or the rejection of Christ.

Sufficient has now been said in support of our two propositions relating to voluntary sin. We see (1) that we are morally responsible to God, but (2) that this is not the reason for eternal punishment. All sins have been forgiven, atoned for, God judges men now according to their consistent acceptance or rejection of Christ as their Saviour, not according to their particular sins.

Eternal Sin

We have already anticipated our proposition that the sin which is the reason for eternal punishment is the eternal sin of rejecting Jesus Christ as one’s personal Saviour. The discussion of eternal sin will resolve itself into three divisions: First, a fuller discussion of the fact that rejecting Christ is the reason for eternal punishment; second, a discussion of the unevangelized, or those who apparently have not an adequate knowledge of Christ; and third, a discussion of the fact that rejecting Christ is Eternal Sin.

Rejecting Christ, The Reason For Eternal Punishment

Not only is this reason for eternal punishment necessarily inferred from the Scriptures, as we have seen in the discussion of particular sin, but it is frequently and definitely stated. In writing to the Thessalonians (2 Thes. 1:8, 9), Paul says, “(The Lord Jesus shall appear,) rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction,” We see from this passage that not knowing God (undoubtedly in the sense of refusing to know Him) and not obeying the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, are the reasons for eternal punishment.

We find the matter very plainly stated in the sixteenth chapter of John (Jn. 16:8, 9: “And He (the Holy Spirit) when He is come, will convince the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believed not on me; etc.”

The clearest teaching on the love of God, eternal life, and eternal punishment, is to be found in that matchless passage of Scripture, John 3:16–21. Here we have the highest light contrasted with the deepest shade. I truly believe that the world does not half appreciate the light because it shrinks from looking into the shadows. The great redemptive purpose of God, including all the world, is here revealed to man, but those who hate God’s Son, it is said, prevent God from redeeming them. What could be clearer than these words: “And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light; for their works were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God.” Turn over the rock that lies on the damp earth, and the crawling things beneath it cover themselves in the crannies of the dark ground, but a bird which might happen to have been imprisoned under the rock, would struggle to rise up into the light. I cannot help wondering as I write, what would take place this moment while all is dark, if suddenly a great light should blaze forth over this city of Greater New York. How many men now engaged in crime would crawl for cover like worms burrowing into the ground. And how many others, like birds with broken wings, would seek their safety in the open light. When the books are opened before the Great White Throne, there will be those who will be made very miserable by the light of the Saviour’s countenance. For them His very presence,—and He is omnipresent in the universe,—will be eternal torment.

There can be no mistaking the meaning of the word “believe” in John’s usage (see my article on “The Ethics of ‘Believe’ in the Fourth Gospel” in Bibliotheca Sacra, January, 1923). I have studied every case in which the word occurs. John does not mean intellectual belief, that is always taken for granted (see below, section on the unevangelized). He means a positive moral reaction of the man’s whole being toward the Saviour. The best modern word I know of to express John’s idea of belief, is allegiance. If one gives full allegiance to the Son of God, he “shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.” But if one refuses to give full allegiance to Christ, he “shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” In the Garden of Eden God did not give men a great body of moral precepts, but one command, obedience to which should bring them into harmony with God’s divine purpose. When the Israelites had failed to do God’s will and were plagued with fiery serpents, it was not perfection which God required, but faith in His way of salvation, which was for them to look to the serpent hung upon a pole, and (by implication) to accept and believe in God’s way of somehow punishing sin and forgiving the sinner. God has always dealt with men according to some one great revealed principle. Abraham, full of shortcomings according to perfect standards, yet believed God’s promise, and it was “accounted to him for righteousness.” As these great single tests of the Old Testament are typical of Christ, so at last Christ was given to the world, became sin for us, was lifted up from the earth like the serpent representing our sin, in order that all men might be drawn to Him and “believe unto salvation.” Christ is, and in type always has been, the great single test which God has for the world. God says to mankind, not “Do this,” or “Do,” or “Do not do a thousand things relating to the moral law,” but in the person of His Son, He says, “What will you do with me who love you? Spit, smite, and crucify, and I will forgive (Lk. 23:34) for ye know not what ye do. But reject me utterly and finally, when the Holy Spirit has convinced you of sin, and I will reject you.” “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men (those who “obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”) loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” This is the reason for eternal punishment, that the radiant presence of the Christ is rejected by despicable humanity. God seeks men. God forgives men. God helps men. What a wonderful Saviour! And yet men reject Him!

What Of The Unevangelized?

The question is here raised, Are there not some who neither accept nor reject Christ? We must give Christ’s own answer: “He that is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:40):”He that is not with me is against me (Lk. 11:23):. (It seems to me very wrong to quote one of these passages without the other). These two statements are equivalent to saying that there is no middle ground. The fact that we cannot tell whether some are for Christ, or against Him, does not alter the fact that before God every man must come to one position or the other.

But the next question to be asked is, Are there not many who have not an adequate understanding of Christ? not only in heathen lands, but in our own country? In answer to this question we may safely make four statements from the Scripture, which taken together give, I believe, a reasonable answer:

(1) No one can escape eternal punishment without faith in Christ.

1 Cor. 8:11, “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Acts 4:12, “And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved.”

(2) One may accept Christ in other terms than those with which the Christian organized church is familiar.

John 1:9, “(Christ is) the true light even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world.”

Micah 5:2, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.

Psalm 19:1, 3, A. V., “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.

Who can deny that the “voice” which spoke to Socrates may have been the Son of God, the Second Person of the Eternal Trinity, “whose goings forth are from of old.” I want to be careful not to misinterpret the following verse, but it does certainly seem to suggest that Christ may be accepted in terms which perhaps the organized church has too often neglected:

Matt. 25:40, “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.”

(3) All men have enough light so that they are without excuse before God, if they do not accept Christ in some terms.

Rom. 1:20, “For the invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even His everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse.”

Rom. 10:17, 18, “So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. But I say, Did they not hear? Yea, verily, Their sound went out into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.”

(4) God takes account of the ignorance of the un-evangelized, by putting the responsibility for that ignorance where it belongs.

Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked.”

Ezek. 33:7, 8, “So thou, O son of Man, I have set thee a watchman unto the House of Israel; therefore hear the word at my mouth and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man thou shalt surely die, and thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thy hand.

I believe Paul must have had this passage from Ezekiel in mind when he said to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:26, 27), “Wherefore I testify unto you this day that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God.” Something of this kind may also have been in his mind when he wrote (1 Cor. 9:16, 17), “For if I preach the Gospel, I have nothing to glory of, for necessity is laid upon me, yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel. For if I do this of mine own will, I have a reward, but if not of mine own will, I have a stewardship intrusted to me.” Again Paul wrote (Rom. 1:14), “I am a debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” Christians are debtors to the unevangelized in the same sense in which the executor of a will is a debtor to the heirs as long as he holds their property from them. Will God eternally punish the heirs of His grace, merely because the executors of the testament neglected their trust? Evidently not. The unevangelized will be saved or lost according as they accept or reject Christ (“the light which lighteth every man”), in the terms which they know. But their blood will be required at the hands of those who know the Gospel and do not preach it. Non-missionary Christianity is not Christianity, and one who does not care to tell others about Christ simply does not belong to Christ, and will be held responsible before God for the spiritual poverty in the lives of those he should have reached with the Gospel.

Farther than the above four statements we cannot go in answering the question with regard to the unevangelized; but sufficient has been said to support our proposition that every normal human being (with regard to the insane and those dying in infancy, see Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 26) either accepts or rejects Christ as his Personal Saviour.

Rejecting Christ Is Eternal Sin

Our proposition, that the eternal sin of rejecting Christ is the reason for eternal punishment, involves three supporting propositions: (1) That the sinner lives forever, as opposed to the teaching of annihilation; (2) that the sinner sins forever, as opposed to the teaching of a “second chance” for repentance; (3) that the sinner is to be punished forever, and that this eternal punishment is a moral necessity in a moral universe.

The Sinner Lives Forever

It is my impression, after careful thought, that the Scripture everywhere takes for granted the indestructibility of the personal identity of the human soul. There are many, however, among whom are the disciples of “Pastor Russell,” who teach that the souls of the unrighteous will be annihilated. The Scripture references to eternal punishment are the strongest refutation of the teaching of annihilation. No one can be punished “for ever and ever” “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb,” if he is not to exist forever and ever. It is sometimes assumed that the opposite of “eternal life” must necessarily be annihilation. Life and death, however, as used by the New Testament writers, Paul and John particularly, are words which have an ethical and spiritual significance, and do not relate to the mere matter of eternal existence. Paul refers to the unsaved as those who are “dead in trespass and sins,” but he does not mean that they are not existent. John gives the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, “That they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” But John (if it is the same John who wrote the Apocalypse) makes it very plain that the opposite of this “life” is not mere non-existence. “The second death” is eternal punishment (Rev. 20:14). The word ἀπόλλυμι, used (Jn. 3:16 and elsewhere) to describe the destruction and lost condition of those who do not accept Christ, is sometimes said to denote annihilation. This is not the case, however, for in many passages (Mt. 10:6; Mt. 15:24; Lk. 15:4; Lk. 15:9, 24, 32; Lk. 19:10) the things to which the word is applied are spoken of as being sought for. No one seeks for a thing which is totally annihilated, but for that which is lost, or in a miserable condition. The teaching of the annihilation of the souls of unbelievers is wholly without foundation in this word, or in any other Scriptural teaching.

The Sinner Sins forever

We come now to a very crucial point in the discussion of eternal punishment. It is our contention that, if one consciously and voluntarily accepts Jesus Christ as his Personal Saviour, though his life may show much vacillation, and he may at times be a “prodigal,” yet he will never reverse his decision. Conversely, if one consciously and voluntarily rejects Christ, though he is left absolutely free from outward compulsion, he will never reverse his decision. To sum the matter up in a word, I am arguing for the essential moral consistency of the human soul throughout eternity. This thought is the necessary complement of our contention for the free moral agency of the human soul. I believe that our arguments up to this point will warrant the extreme statement that moral freedom, especially in the matter of one’s relationship to Christ, is absolutely guaranteed to every individual by the very “determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” Prof. Fullerton (Introd. to Philos.) is very much agitated about the question, however. He says that he does not want as a neighbor anyone whose moral acts are not determined by heredity and environment, for no one would know what such a person was going to do next. Such fears are groundless, however, if one recognizes as a supplement to the truth of moral freedom, the truth of essential moral consistency. By the study of Psychology, or by the simple observation of character formation, we become conscious of the process by which human beings reach decisions, and of the permanency of those decisions. William MacDougall’s chapter on “Development of the Sentiments” (Social Psychology), (barring his determinism), is very suggestive on this subject. I find the idea very essential, that thinking, deciding minds will be self-consistent in their decisions. Of course, because of the variety and intricacy of human experience, this consistency becomes apparent only after a comparatively long period of time.

On one occasion Jesus said (Mk. 3:29), “Whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” In the verses immediately preceding this one, we find that the scribes had said of Christ, “He hath Belzebub, and by the prince of demons casteth he out the demons.” Christ had been evidencing himself as the Son of God, and the Spirit by which he worked, was the Holy Spirit of God. The issue before the scribes was clear cut and unavoidable. The evidence was all there. They simply chose to blaspheme and reject the Christ and the Holy Spirit by which he worked, and with him, they were rejecting the God who sent him. It is a clear and flagrant case of rejecting God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christ calls it “eternal sin.”

This is evidently the “sin unto death” (1 Jn. 5:16, 17) which cannot be forgiven because, as we have shown before, it is essentially a refusal to accept forgiveness. The impossibility of forgiveness is not based on God’s arbitrary withdrawal of grace after a certain point. Christ died for those who he knew would not accept him, “tasted death for every man” (I Jn. 2:2). God’s word to Noah, sometimes rendered, “My spirit will not always strive with man” (Gen. 6:4), is clearly a mistaken rendering and does not fit the context, see margin of Am. R. V. The basis of the impossibility of forgiveness is not God’s Spirit ceasing to strive (see p. 48), but man’s refusal to be forgiven, and as it clearly seems to me, the moral ontological necessity for eternal consistency in this refusal.

I must pause here to anticipate an objection. Are there not many examples of men who lived sinful, ungodly lives until they reached an advanced age, and who then repented and showed the “fruit of the Spirit” in their living? There certainly are. I have heard hundreds of testimonies of such men in churches and rescue missions, and in my army experience. I believe that I have always detected in these testimonies a thought something like this: “I should have come to Christ before; I should have sought him more earnestly; but when at last He found me and I found Him, then I accepted Him. I had never really understood before that.” In other words, delayed conversion may be due to delayed evangelization, and does not necessarily imply that those thus converted had previously been in a state of conscious voluntary rebellion against Christ. One who is in such a state will never repent.

God was very longsuffering in the days of Noah (1 Pet. 3:2), giving men full opportunity to repent, but when it became apparent that “every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually,” God sent destruction upon the earth. The common translation of Hebrews 12:17 is very misleading. It sounds as though Esau sought with tears to repent, but was prevented arbitrarily. The gender of the pronouns in Greek, however, makes it clear that it was “the blessing” which Esau sought with tears, just as it is recorded in the Genesis narrative, and not a “place of repentance.” To seek for a place of repentance is practically to repent, and those who are guilty of eternal sin will never repent.

The passage in Hebrews 6:4–6, is probably the clearest commentary we have on the words of Jesus in Mk. 3:29:

“For as touching those who were once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and then fell away, it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.”

This passage, I firmly believe, does not describe any who ever really accepted Christ as their Personal Saviour from sin, but those who, like Judas and many others who are “without excuse” before God, have had an adequate opportunity to know the blessings of life in Christ, and have rejected Him. It is especially noteworthy that the resultant condition of these persons is described not in terms of any arbitrary judgment of God, but in terms of their permanent moral consistency, though there were a thousand “chances after death,” “It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance.”

Progressive Nature Of Moral Life

Spiritual and moral life is dynamic. It does not for one moment stop moving in one direction or the other. We need to give earnest heed lest we “drift away” (Heb. 2:2) into a permanent decision against Christ. “Today if ye shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts!” (Heb. 3:7, 8). This progressive nature of life is one of the strongest evangelistic arguments we have, as shown in the following sayings of Paul:

Rom. 6:19, “As ye presented your members as servants to un-cleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity, even so now present your members as servants to righteousness unto sanctification.

Gal. 6:7, 8, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth unto his own flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth unto the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap eternal life.”

In the following references we have the same thought:

James 1:15, “Sin, when it is full grown, bringeth forth death.”

Ps. 84:7, “They go from strength to strength; every one of them appeareth before God in Zion.”

Prov. 4:18, “But the path of the righteous is as the dawning light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”

Nothing but the regenerative power of Our Saviour can stop the downward trend of sin. If we accept Him, we are “converted,” faced in a new direction, and begin the ever developing life of righteousness in His strength. If one rejects Him, consciously and voluntarily, in whatever terms He may appear, one will never repent, for sin is fully as dynamic as righteousness. There is no other hope but Christ.

Satan’s soliloquy in book four of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” represents with remarkable truth, I believe, the condition of a soul in eternal sin. He thus addresses himself:

“Hadst thou the same free will and power to stand?
Thou hadst. Whom hast thou then, or what, to accuse,
But Heaven’s free love dealt equally to all?
Be then his love accursed, since, love, or hate,
To me alike it deals eternal woe.

O, then, at last relent! Is there no place
Left for repentance, none for pardon left?
None left but by submission:

But say I could repent, and could obtain,
By act of grace, my former state; how soon
Would height recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feigned submission swore!

Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall:
So farewell hope, and, with hope, farewell fear,
Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my God. . . .”

The Scripture is positive in the teaching of the essential moral consistency of the human soul:

Rom. 11:29, “For the gifts and calling of God are not repented of.”

Rev. 22:11, “He that is unrighteous, let him do unrighteousness still; and he that is filthy, let him be made filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him do righteousness still: and he that is holy, let him be made holy still.”

The Sinner Is To Be Punished Forever

The moral reason for the eternal duration of the punishment for rejecting Christ is the eternal nature of the sin itself, which we have just discussed. Eternal sin makes necessary eternal punishment. An argument against this eternal duration is sometimes advanced on the ground that the word translated “eternal” originally meant “agelong,” and not literally “without end.” This is another example, however, of the frequently observed etymological fallacy. One might as well argue that every boy is a knave, because “knave” and “Knabe” come from the same root; or that to apologize does not mean to confess a fault in modern English usage, because the Greek word from which “apology” comes did not have that signification. The word used to denote the duration of final punishment (see Scripture references in Introductory note II) means “eternal” in New Testament Greek. It describes also eternal comfort (II Thes. 2:16), eternal spiritual values (II Cor. 4:18), and the eternal throne of God (Heb. 1:8).

Section III. The Elements in Eternal Punishment

The Place of Eternal Punishment

As to the place of eternal punishment, and how that place will be bounded, if it has or will have boundaries, we must frankly confess that we know but little. It has never been revealed. It would be useless to study the Scriptural words referring to Hell for an answer (see Intro. Note III) for they all refer to a condition of the unbelieving dead before the last judgment, and not to eternal punishment. The place of eternal punishment is referred to in the Apocalypse as a “Lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14 and 15; 21:8), but we are not told what are the delimitations of that lake. The place is elsewhere referred to as “outer darkness” Mt. 25:20; 8:22; 22:13). The meaning is quite clear in each occurrence of this phrase; the wicked are to be outside of the fellowship of the household of God. But this gives us no information as to the place where they will be.

A thought similar to that of “outer darkness” is expressed in Matt. 25:41, “Depart from me cursed.” The place of punishment is somewhere away from the place where Christ is associated in blessed fellowship with His own. Some would leap to the conclusion suggested in this verse that eternal punishment is simply banishment from the presence of God. But we must not forget that it is the Omnipresent Christ who will bid the cursed to depart. It is true that “our sins separate between us and God” (Isa. 59:2). We have no better way to express the result of sin; but what is probably meant is that our sin separates us from His approval, and brings us under His wrath. “Go,” He will say, but we know that the disapproval of His eyes “as a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:14) will follow them. Indeed, we find that the place of eternal punishment will be in sight of the presence of the Christ and His angels, and evidently of His saints also (Rev. 14:10; 2 Thes. 1:8, 9; Isa. 2:19; 6:22–24. See Intro. Note II). How shall we summarize the teaching of the Scripture concerning the place of eternal punishment? We speak of a place because we are not able to think of human souls as existing without being somewhere, but the question “Where?” is not answered for us in the Bible. We are merely told that it is somewhere in the presence of God.

Material Elements Associated With Eternal Punishment

There are in the Scripture certain references to material elements in eternal punishment, namely, worms, fire, and brimstone or sulphur. These references are so casual as to indicate that they provoke no questions in the minds of contemporary readers of the Biblical manuscripts. They were evidently clearly understood. In our day, however, these references to material elements in eternal punishment are, to many, a very considerable stumbling block. They are not clearly understood. The question is, What possible relationship can there be between material worms, fire, and sulphur, and the punishment of non-material souls? And the further question is, What meaning did the inspired writers actually intend to convey in mentioning these material elements in connection with eternal punishment?

Historical Interpretation

I believe in the so-called “literal” view of Scripture interpretation, but I believe that the word “literal” (implying that every letter, Latin “litera,” is inspired) is badly misunderstood. It sounds as though we believe that there are no figures of speech in the Bible, which, of course, there are. My view could more properly be termed “historical.” That is, I believe in the inerrancy of the actual historical meaning which was intended by the inspired writers. The one question I would ask in interpreting any Scripture therefore is, What were the words really intended to mean in their historical setting?4

The Romanists hold to a stupid literalism in interpretation. When Christ says, “This is my body,” He is made to mean that the bread is actually transformed into His flesh; and by the same token I suppose, when He said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches,” He meant that He was transformed into wood and bark, and the disciples into twigs, fruit, and leaves. No, “literal” is the wrong word. The Bible must be taken honestly in its true historical meaning. Let us therefore seek this historical interpretation of the Scripture passages which associate material elements with eternal punishment.

It is my contention that the purpose of the inspired writers, in referring to material elements in connection with eternal punishment, was to teach that the wicked will be eternally in the Presence of the Holy God, and that this Presence will be terrible for them. This proposition may sound rather startling. I would not presume to suggest a figurative interpretation did I not believe that it represents the true historical meaning. The reader is asked to weigh the following arguments carefully, and not to accept them unless the Spirit bears witness to them as true.

Worms And Fire

Isaiah (Isa. 14:11; 66:22–24), and Jesus (Mk. 9:48) associate worms with eternal punishment, and both mention fire with the worms. This must therefore be a figure of speech, for worms and fire cannot literally exist in the same place at the same time. To make these words literal is to make them void of meaning for human beings, which certainly was not the intention of the inspired writers. In Mark 14:43–49 Christ is saying, “If a hand, or a foot, or eye causes you to offend, cut it off, or pluck it out. Rather should men enter into life maimed, than be thrown out whole into Gehenna (translated Hell) where their worm never dies, and their fire never goes out.” Now Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, southwest of the city of Jerusalem, was, long before Isaiah and long after Christ, the city dumping place for all sorts of refuse. Doubtless it was always infested with worms, and we know that fires were always kept burning there to consume the rubbish. Gehenna was to the city of Jerusalem what the rockpile incinerator is to some army camps. All sorts of refuse, including even carcases of dead animals, were thrown there to be burned or eaten by worms as the case might be. With these facts very familiar in the minds of His hearers, Christ says that those who cling to sin rather than yielding to God, will be cast into a Gehenna where both worms and fire are eternal. It surely is not unreasonable to say that Christ used this expression as a figure of speech to represent the moral nature of eternal punishment. Eternal sin, which is the eternally multiplying worm of putrefaction of the souls of unbelievers, will be surrounded by eternal fire which is the Scriptural type (see fire with “fire and brimstone” below) of the Presence of the Holy God.

Fire And Brimstone

We pass now to the Scripture references to “fire” and “brimstone” (see Intro. Note II). As in the case of “worms and fire,” our only question is, What did the ones who wrote these words intend them to mean?

We have already indicated the fact that fire is a Scriptural type of the presence of God. We read, e. g., “Our God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). Fire is a symbol of God’s Presence to Abraham (Gen. 15:16), to Israel (Ex. 19:18; Deut. 4:11, 12, 15, 33, 36; Isa. 4:5), in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2, Acts 7:30), at Sinai (Ex. 19:18; Lev. 10:2; Deut. 5:4, 5, 22, 24, 26; 9:10, 15; 10:4; Heb. 12:18), and at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). First century Jewish Christians doubtless understood this symbolism very readily.

The ancient significance of brimstone, or sulphur, is not as generally understood today as that of fire. Sulphur burning was a means of purification. The Greek verb which originally meant “to smoke with brimstone” comes to mean “to fumigate” and sometimes simply “to purify.” The purifying powers of sulphur fumes in fumigating and deodorizing were associated in the Greek way of thinking with the purifying powers of divinity. In Greek, the word brimstone itself is the neuter of the adjective meaning “divine.” In view of these facts, little known by the Christian public, but well authenticated nevertheless, I believe that we are not indulging in speculation or fanciful interpretation, but are keeping well within the fields of genuine historical probability, when we say that to the inspired writers of the Scripture “fire” or “fire and brimstone” typified the Presence of the Holy God.

The Presence Of Christ The Agency Of Torment

We therefore conclude that when John wrote that the unbelieving shall be “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone,” “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:8 and 14:10), he meant exactly the same thing that Paul meant when he said that the wicked shall be punished “by the presence of the Lord and by the glory of his power” (2 Thes. 1:8, 9). In other words, it is the Presence of the Christ they have spurned which will make eternity a terror for unbelievers. A worm which will not cease to putrefy, eternally surrounded by fire, a foul odor which will not cease to be vile, eternally permeated by sulphur smoke, these expressions are figures of speech to represent the eternal condition of those who reject Christ, but still must live somewhere in His Holy Presence.

Evil men cannot live comfortably in the presence of good. John says of Cain (I Jn. 3:12), “And wherefore slew he him (Abel)? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Strong, in his Systematic Theology, seems to argue that it is the presence of Christ which makes eternity terrible for unbelievers, for he says (p. 1034):

“2 Thes. 1:8, 9, “Who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of His might”—here ἀπό. from, equals not separation, but ‘proceeding from,’ and indicates that the everlasting presence of Christ, once realized, ensures everlasting destruction.”

Hosea also gives a sentence pointing in the same direction (Hos. 13:9):”It is thy destruction, O Israel, that thou art against Me, against thy Help.”

I believe it is in the first chapter of the autobiography of John G. Paton that the story is told of the atheist who had refused to listen to the name of God for many years.

BSac 81:328 (Oct 1925) p. 458

Finally when he was at the point of death a minister came to see him. The minister tried to speak of God, but the atheist, in a fit of anger, cried out, “Yes I know there is a God and a just one, too, but I hated Him in life and I hate Him in death.” And so he passed into eternity. Illustrations of this kind could be multiplied. What the presence of the parent is to the unrepentant child in sin, such will be the presence of Him Whose “eyes are as a flame of fire,” to those who reject Him.

Let no one suppose that any hypocrisy or any self-hardening will enable the rebellious soul to endure the presence of the Saviour without discomfort. “All things are naked and laid open before the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.” For those who, like Peter, even after great sin, can look into the face of Jesus and say, “Thou knowest (perhaps no man would know it, for we have failed so miserably, but) Thou knowest that I love Thee,”—for those, the Presence of Christ will be the all inclusive happiness of Heaven. But for those who (Heb. 10:29) have “trodden under foot the Son of God, and counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith they were sanctified, an unholy thing, and done despite unto the Spirit of grace,”—I think everybody must be moved by the marvelous love of God revealed in the appropriateness of His dealing with such! Would to God we could persuade them now to accept the “sanctification” which is completely provided for them through the “blood of the covenant!” For those who refuse the Saviour, there is no other hope (Heb. 10:26, 27), “but a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries.” Mark now, that this is not due to any arbitrary or artificial penalism, not to any limitation of the love of God; but in the very nature of the case, because God is what He is, love, and because they are, and have willed to be, what they are, despisers of love, therefore for them (Heb. 10:31) “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God!”

Rest in God’s Love

I believe that with the above interpretation of eternal punishment, we can more readily come to the point of resting the case of humanity with God, and accepting His plan of discipline as it is revealed to us in the Scripture. Someone has said that if he were in Heaven, and knew one soul was in Hell, he would be miserable. Frankly, I do not feel so about it. I regret inexpressibly that anyone should reject My Saviour, but I cannot find it in my heart to regret that those who reject Him must live in His presence forever.

Section IV. Conclusion

Divine Vengeance And Mercy

I have prayed very earnestly that in endeavoring to come to a clearer understanding of this Scriptural Doctrine, I might not seem to any to be destroying the foundations on which a previous, and, I believe, inferior interpretation rested. I have endeavored to go very carefully step by step, and arrive at an understanding of what the Bible really teaches on this subject. Some will now ask the old question, “What is this? A new teaching?” I reply emphatically that it is not. It is simply an attempt to get rid of a Medieval interpretation and get back to original Scripture teaching.

Divine vengeance is not like human revenge. Those passages which would seem to teach that God delights in the punishment of the wicked have been misunderstood. We read, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” saith the Lord,” and we forget the verse taken as a whole is one of the most merciful in the Bible, for it forbids human revenge and substitutes God’s longsuffering plan for His creatures (Rom. 12:19): “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”

Prof. Cleland B. McAfee told me recently of a situation which in a measure illustrates God’s attitude toward those who reject His grace. A certain minister has a son who, over a period of many years, has continued to harden himself in sin. He is so diseased morally and physically that he can no longer be a member of his father’s household. He is so hardened in evil that there seems (though God alone knows) no possibility of his repentance. His father supports him in an institution and provides for him there. What remorse without repentance, bitterness without sorrow, hardened selfishness without gratitude the younger man must feel in the presence of his father I can scarcely imagine. This is his punishment. But the father has done all that he can do, except to be untrue to himself and his love for righteous members of his household.

Likewise, we must be fully persuaded, God has done all that Omnipotence can do to save every one. He died for us in the person of the Son, and if a thousand deaths could do more, He would die a thousand times. Had there been one lost soul in the world, God would have died for him. Would it save one soul from Hell, God would create a new world for each individual. But He cannot make right wrong. He cannot be untrue to the moral constitution of the universe which gives value to love, and gives eternal life to those who love the Saviour.

Divine mercy is not limited, it is refused. “His mercy endureth forever.” “He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The common version translation of Genesis 6:3 is exceedingly unfortunate. The correct translation, and the only one which fits the context is, “My breath shall not always remain in man, but his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.” In other words, God simply stated the measure of human life from that time on. God’s Spirit certainly will always strive with man, in some way, else there is no eternal punishment of any sort. God by His works of Providence manifests Himself to mankind in blessing and disasters, peace and happiness, sorrow and bereavement, and all that He does calls His children closer to Him; but all that He does only drives the rebellious farther from His blessing and deeper into His wrath. God’s Spirit always strives with man, while some surrender themselves to His love and others harden themselves in rebellion. When Pharaoh had repeatedly refused to let Israel go to sacrifice to Jehovah, it is written that God several times more hardened his heart; but how? Simply by revealing more and more of Himself as a Saviour. Israel turned to Salvation and Egypt was hardened in eternal sin, just while God’s Spirit was striving with man.

The Presence Of God

Finally, the greatest thought that has come in all this study is that eternal punishment—and eternal glory as well—is what it is, simply because God is what He is, and strives to manifest Himself to human creatures whom for love’s sake, He has made free to accept or reject Him.

“Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy Presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in the grave, behold Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from Thee, but the night shineth as the day. The darkless and the night are both alike to Thee” (Ps. 139:7–12).

What will be the joy of heaven, if not the Presence of our risen Saviour “Who loved us and gave Himself for us?” “And His servants shall serve Him, and they shall see His face.” “We know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is!”

What will be the torment of eternal punishment, if not the same Presence of Him Whom they have willed to hate? We must live through all eternity in the Presence of God, somewhere in the universe in which He is everywhere supreme. Why not get right with Him now, before it is too late?


1) Hereditary sin as it affects us before the age of discretion, is not a temptation, but merely a condition to be reckoned with. It did not affect Christ for He was sinless. This fact is a part of the miracle of the incarnation of the Second Adam.

2) Isaiah, in a somewhat obscure passage (Isa. 65:17–25) seems to be describing conditions in an age when hereditary sin is to have been completely eradicated from the world, and all other sin is to be perfectly held in check. These individuals without hereditary sin have a kind of life materially different from ours, but are of the same physiological species to which we belong. Their life is much what we would expect our life to be, if we had been born in a sinless world.

3) Those dying in infancy, and unevangelized individuals, are not accountable for hereditary sin, according to Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 26.

4) This is the question of interpretation, and leads naturally to the correlated question of application, Are there any factors in our environment which, differing from the historical setting of whatever passages of Scripture might be under discussion, change the application of this Scripture to us? There are surprisingly few such factors, though there are some (e. g., changes in sanitary methods of cooking, etc., which make the spirit, not the letter, of the ancient sanitary code applicable to us). Problems of human faith and practice are pretty much the same in every age and place.