The State of the Impenitent Dead

Edited By Alvah Hovey, D.D., LL.D.

Section 7




We have now examined briefly the leading objections drawn from the word of God to our view of the state of the impenitent dead. These objections have been found inconclusive. They are not of such a nature as to countervail a single clear affirmation of endless personal existence on the part of the wicked.

Here, then, it might be well to pause; for the Scriptures are our sole authority on this subject. As their testimony leads, or even leans, our belief must humbly follow. But many persons choose to begin their study of this great theme at the very point wliere we are inclined to finish. Having little reverence for the word of God, they sometimes call in question its infallibility, and often treat its language with less deference than is paid to their own speculative reason. Whatever may be their theory of inspiration, they do not hesitate to interpret the sacred oracles into harmony with their limited and interested judgment, to adjust, by a never-ending process, revealed theology to their floating ideas of natural theology. Hence, as might well be expected in such a case, after insisting upon the unreasonableness of the doctrine of eternal misery as the wages of sin, they make haste to repudiate this doctrine, and to extract from the living word some justification of their course. We propose, therefore, to review some of the arguments which are said to prove the doctrine of this essay to be unreasonable.

Still, we rest the truth of our doctrine, be it observed, upon the testimony of divine revelation, and cannot therefore be required to show that it is a doctrine of natural theology, taught by unaided human reason. If it is to be found in the sacred record, all the reasons  —  and they are unanswerable  —  which prove that record to be an expression of God's will, combine to make a belief in this doctrine reasonable. Whoever, therefore, would overthrow it by the weapons of human philosophy, and thus prejudge or preclude the testimony of revelation, must take upon himself the onus probandi, and prove it to be positively unreasonable. He must show that the human mind may be relied upon in the premises, and that, while rightly estimating the guilt of sin as well as the supposed doom of the sinner, it pronounces the latter to be unjust or unmerciful.

And here let the difficulty of this task be noted. The human mind, has it any power to apprehend the quantitative relations of sin and punishment? Is it able in any case to determine by itself the exact penalty, whether of loss or of pain, which is due to a responsible being for a given violation of right? Neither the logical understanding nor the power of rational insight in man is capable, it seems to us, of doing this  —  of adjusting retribution to moral wrong. Not even conscience has in itself, apart from the spirit of God, any measure or standard by which it can ascertain the quantum of penalty which is justly annexed to each different degree of human sinfulness. This, perhaps, is a kind of knowledge which God has reserved in his own power, giving to us facts without philosophy, and thus treating us for the present as little children, who arc unable to fathom the deepest questions of his moral government. Turning now to the actual judgment of mankind; there are some, it appears, who exclude the very notion of punishment from the divine administration, declaring that all suffering is preventive or reformatory. There are others who admit the reality of penal retribution, but restrict it to the loss of possible good, whether this good be defined as happiness or as conscious being itself; and there are others  —  hitherto the vast majority of mankind  —  who believe in punishment for sin, both positive and negative, in time and in eternity. Now, whatever may be the merit of either, or of all these opinions, the simple naming of them brings up at once the query, whether human reason can be trusted in the premises, and whether an argument founded upon it must not be, at least, exceedingly precarious.

But, leaving this thought, let us take up the arguments which are said to prove our belief unreasonable. And,  — 

I. The doctrine of eternal misery as the penalty of sin is irreconcilable with the doctrine of God's omnipotence; for it affirms the endless existence of what is hostile to God and abhorred by him. The same objection, it has often been replied, may be urged against the existence of moral evil at all; for it is diametrically opposed to the moral nature of God, whether it exist for a day or forever. Yet moral evil is permitted; and once actual in the universe, it is ever actual to him who is without succession, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, with whom " a thousand years are as one day, and one day as a thousand years."1

II. the doctrine of eternal misery, as the penalty of sin, is irreconcilable with the righteousness of God; for the penalty is altogether too great for the offence. This is true, it is alleged, whether we consider the sinner's probation as very brief, his knowledge as very limited, or his condition as very unfavorable. Let us examine, one by one, the grounds of this objection.

The sinner's probation, we are reminded, is very brief, as if God were in haste to fix his doom. There is no conceivable proportion between the longest life on earth and endless existence hereafter; but justice requires that the duration of punishment be proportioned in every case to that of the offence. Hence eternal woe cannot be the wages of sin committed in the present life. The righteousness of God forbids it.

In reply to the objection thus stated, we remark (1), that it mistakes the length of a sinner's probation for the degree of his guilt; in other words, it assumes that a great moral wrong cannot be perpetrated in a short time; but this is a palpable error. In judging men here, we do not measure the guilt of an act by the time consumed in its performance, nor do we adjust the penalty to that time. Crimes of the greatest malignity, and meriting the severest retribution, may be committed in a moment. The element of time is taken into account, simply because it may serve to reveal the deliberate malice of the offender. We also remark (2), that the omniscience of God must be borne in mind when we contrast the sinner's probation with his final doom. For this attribute of Jehovah permits us to assume that the determinate character of an individual is just as fully revealed to him by a brief period of trial as by a longer one. What advantage to justice, so far as the sinner is concerned, will there be gained by prolonging the trial? What principle of equity requires the Supreme Ruler to extend indefinitely the probation of one who has shown himself to be fully set upon evil, and utterly opposed to holiness?

We remark (3), that serious men of every creed accept the doctrine of eternal retribution for temporal sin. Those who believe in the final salvation of all men admit that there are different degrees of happiness in the life to come, and maintain that wickedness here diminishes happiness there. This diminution is eternal loss for temporal sin, eternal detriment for evil-doing in time. The same may also be said of those who believe in the personal extinction of the wicked hereafter. For the sin of a day, they are punished with the loss of all good forever and ever. And, if this may be consistent with perfect righteousness, who shall say that what is even more to be dreaded, eternal misery, must be inconsistent with righteousness? Is not the principle and the difficulty the same in both cases?

Again, the sinner's knowledge is said to be very limited. He is unable to form any adequate conception of eternal blessedness or misery, and knows but imperfectly the will of God. In a word, he appreciates neither the penalty nor the claims of the "divine" law as thus explained; and, therefore, it would be unjust to inflict so heavy a punishment upon him.

To this form of the objection we reply: (1) That the righteousness of a law, including its penalty, does not depend upon the penalty's being known and appreciated beforehand. For if it does, then obviously a man is guilty, not because he does wrong, but because he braves suffering  —  not in proportion to his disregard of a just requirement, but in proportion to his disregard of self  —  not as one who tramples on right, and does that which, being in itself wrong, deserves punishment, but as one who ignores danger, and exposes himself to threatened misery; in a word, he is guilty, if we may thus abuse language, not because he is sinful, but because he is unwise. A previous knowledge of penalties may obviously tend to prevent crime; but it neither makes nor enhances the criminality of an act, except, perhaps, in so far as it enlightens the moral judgment of the perpetrator. It is no excuse for undue severity on the part of a ruler, to say, that his subjects were distinctly forewarned of it; for many a tyrant has pre-announced the unjust and inhuman tortures which would follow the slightest disregard of his will. Nor, on the other hand, is an ignorance of the penalties to be inflicted for any given crime the least excuse to the criminal for his act of sin. Theft is no less wrong in a country where it is punished with imprisonment than in one where it is punished with death. If, then, it would be just in God to sentence unbelievers to eternal misery, provided they had continued such with a full knowledge and appreciation of their coming doom, it is equally just for him to pronounce and execute that sentence, although they have no adequate conception of the doom beforehand. And let it also be noted that neither pain nor deprivation can be truly understood or appreciated except by experience. Tell a man, for instance, of the headache or toothache, of lingering torture or solitary confinement, who has never experienced that of which you speak, and the language employed, however suitable in itself, will be to him like the sounding brass or tinkling cymbal; it will have no true and definite meaning. Hence, were it necessary to the justice of a punishment that it should be really comprehended beforehand, there could be no just punishments in any administration, human or divine.

And (2), as to a knowledge of the divine law, or the rule of duty, we maintain that it is within the reach of every man, not perhaps in all its breadth and spirituality, but so far forth as he is held responsible for its violation. Men everywhere do what they know to be wrong. If any portion of the divine will is disclosed to them, that portion they disregard and trample in the dust. If, then, we bear in mind that the intensity of woe hereafter is to be adjusted to the guilt of the sinner as measured by his disposition, and by his means of knowledge, and that every man does know something of God's will which he deliberately contemns, the force of this objection seems to be completely destroyed. But we are also, in this connection, to bear in mind the omniscience of God. He knows the hearts of all, and the exact amount of light offered to such as have not the gospel. And, at the same time, we are to remember the words of truth: he " that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much;''2 words which go far to answer some of the darkest insinuations which are made against the government of God.

Once more: The sinner's condition while on trial is very unfavorable; he is predisposed to evil from the first; he does wrong as surely as he has an opportunity to do wrong. It cannot, then, we are told, be right to inflict so dreadful a penalty for transgression upon one whose condition is so unfavorable to virtue.

A great difficulty, we are free to confess, is brought forward in tins objection; but, however great it may be, there is no more reason why it should be urged against the doctrine of this essay than against any doctrine which makes man responsible for his moral conduct. For the difficulty consists, not in the estimate which is put on the guilt of sin, but in holding one to be really and truly responsible for it notwithstanding the bias of a fallen nature. Whatever moral evil there is in our race must be chargeable either to mankind or to God; for to attempt a division of the responsibility is absurd. But if we admit that men, rather than God, must be held responsible for their unrighteousness, the objection under notice loses all its weight. There may be still in the case a great difficulty to finite reason  —  a mystery altogether above our comprehension  —  but human responsibility for sin, and, indeed, for all the sin in man, is, nevertheless, a fact attested by conscience, and affirmed by the word of God  —  in fact not to be evaded nor set aside without, at the same time, undermining the foundations of all religion and morality. While, then, conscience, revelation, and the common sense of mankind hold the wrongdoer to be guilty for his deed notwithstanding a native bias to evil, neither this sinful proclivity, nor any other feature of his condition in the present life, can be urged against the justice of punishing him for unrighteousness, and according to the intrinsic ill-desert of the latter.

Finally, the doctrine of eternal misery as the punishment of sin is irreconcilable with the doctrine of God's benevolence; for infinite benevolence, we are assured, would have made the probation of man longer, his knowledge greater, and his moral nature better, if the period of trial was to be followed in so many instances by so awful a doom.

As to the length of man's probation, we reply, it is not too short for the exercise of repentance and faith; nor is there any probability that greater numbers would be led to repentance were the probation of man a thousand years instead of threescore and ten. Indeed, there is ample ground for believing that the brevity of his trial is a merciful arrangement. Before the lives of men were shortened, their wickedness became intolerable in the earth; and such, we believe, is human nature, that men would be less likely than they now are to turn from sin, were the period of hope and grace indefinitely or even greatly extended.

In responding to the second specification, we ask for proof that any increase of knowledge would of itself have the effect of leading those men who now disregard the will of God to obey that will. The ways of Providence, it may be, are so carefully directed and so perfect, that no man has ever continued in unbelief to the end of life, who would have turned to Christ had simply his knowledge of divine truth been greater. When it is proved that some individual of our race has sought with an honest mind, but in vain, for the truth, or has had a disposition of heart which truth could mould, sua virtute, into the likeness of Christ, then this objection may be pronounced valid, but not before; and its cogency would depend, even then, upon the assumption that God is controlled by the principle of benevolence solely, having no regard to right and justice, except as means to an end.

To the third specification we reply, that the infinite benevolence of God does not prevent him from holding men responsible in spite of their depraved nature for sinful conduct, nor from punishing them for it in this life. Individuals and nations are not unfrequently destroyed for their crimes. But if punishment  —  if retribution, in the proper sense of these terms, is not in itself inconsistent with supreme benevolence, it is obviously impossible for us to say that retribution, up to the full demands of justice, is so. He only who knows all things can determine whether any relaxation of the penalty due to sin will promote the highest good of his rational subjects. And here it may be noted, that none are more disposed to urge the plea of insanity in behalf of the murderer, than men who object to the doctrine of divine retribution in a future life. But, by urging this plea, they do tacitly admit the justice and fitness of penal retribution, were there no such plea to be offered. Nor can the significance of this admission be destroyed without going still further, and asserting, that, just so far as one sins, is there evidence of his insanity and moral irresponsibility  —  a statement which virtually denies the existence of moral character and government, gives the lie direct to conscience, and darkens fearfully the prospect of a life beyond the grave.3

There are, however, it is well known, many persons to whom the benevolence of God seems to be inconsistent with penal retribution in his government; and who therefore look upon all suffering as either preventive, reformatory, or disciplinary, and boldly reject the doctrine of any limit to probation. But, in denying there is any limit to probation, they overlook, we arc compelled to think, the analogy of God's government in the present life. For the laws of our bodily organization may be violated to a certain extent, and for a limited time, without permanent injury. There is a recuperative force in the human system, which, up to a certain point, repairs the injury; but beyond that point there is no recovery except by miracle, and the bodily probation, so to speak; terminates. So, also, with character. Actions have been performed so base and malignant, especially when repeated with deliberate purpose, as to destroy beyond remedy our confidence in the perpetrator. Hence, the course of events in this life clearly suggests the doctrine of a limit to moral probation. But it should be distinctly noted, that this doctrine does not represent God as at any time rejecting the penitent; it may rather be said to affirm the final and steadfast, and criminal impenitency of the lost. Not so much outward bars as inward passions shut them out of heaven. The limit of their probation may be marked simply by a withdrawal of the spirit of God, leaving them to hasten without restraint from the fountain of all good.

Analogy, then, is against the doctrine of unlimited probation; and, hence, it may be presumed that reason also, when fairly applied, will be found against it. To attempt this application may, perhaps, be rash; but we cannot wholly forbear. Let us, then, taking the position of our opponents, and reasoning from the single idea of benevolence, assume that the object of penal suffering in the divine economy is not the satisfaction of righteousness or justice, but solely the good of the offender. Let us further assume that suffering does not act as a mechanical force  —  as purgatorial fire, consuming, literally, the dross of evil passions, and leaving the spirit pure  —  but rather as a moral agency appealing to the soul, and urging it to the choice and pursuit of holiness. And let us finally assume two facts which rest upon a wide range of observation, namely, that men are now involved in sin, and that their delight in moral evil is ever upon the increase. How, then, shall God in his benevolence arouse the slumbering reason of mankind, and move them by the argument from suffering to enter the path of endless peace, even at the cost of present self-denial and conflict? Is it not obvious that the earliest and the strongest consideration possible must be used to persuade them? And how can the prospect of misery be laid before the self-seeking spirit, and made so effectual for good, as by affixing a limit to probation, and making the result endless? In what other way can so strong, and earnest, and benignant an appeal be made? How, otherwise, can so many be moved to renounce what they now love, and seek a higher good? And how else can God exhibit the strongest possible desire to persuade all men to forsake evil and become forever blessed? Not assuredly by giving to mankind a longer, but still limited probation; for, as we have before seen, this would diminish the likelihood of repentance and the number of the saved. Nor, indeed, by making probation endless; for in that case no appeal could be drawn from the prospect of evil. For the sinner would know that his present act of sin involves but the attendant suffering or loss, nothing in the future really depending upon it. And as he loves sin now, and chooses it, notwithstanding the attendant evil, so will he, moment by moment, forever. And this surely is to eliminate from the idea of punishment not merely the retributive, but also the preventive, element as well.

The objection now before us, it will be seen by all, rests upon the assumption that God is simply benevolent, and not distinctively righteous; that the only moral attribute which he has to express is goodness, and the sole object of his government to secure the happiness of his creatures. But this view appears to us irreconcilable with the phenomena of conscience, the workings of Providence, and the declarations of Scripture. These all testify that righteousness is a fundamental attribute of the Godhead; that he loves rectitude for its own sake, its essential beauty and excellence, as well as happiness for its own sake; and, hence, that it will not do for us to conclude, from the attribute of benevolence alone, what will be the process of God's moral administration hereafter. There is, we think, a great error at this point in the reasonings of those who deny the endless misery of the impenitent dead.

Here we pause. It has been shown by the certain testimony of God's word that the impenitent dead are to be forever conscious and miserable, and that the objections to this view, whether derived professedly from divine revelation or human reason, are unworthy of confidence. How momentous, then, are the interests which depend upon human conduct in the present life! Let not the reader, in closing this little volume, forget that good and evil, life and death, are placed before him; that now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation. And may God lead us all to repentance, for his Son's sake: Amen.



1) See Erbkam's elaborate article "Uber d. Lehre v. d. ewigen berdamniss," in the Studien ii. Kritiken, 1838, p. 38-4 sq.; also T. M. Post, in the New Englander, 1856, p. 115 sq.

2) Luke xvi. 10.

3) See a fuller discussion of several topics here alluded to in the Chr. Rev., October, 1851, by the writer of these pages.