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THE NATURE OF FUTURE PUNISHMENT.
MATTHEW Xxv. 30.
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
ERRONEOUS Views and destructive prejudices have extensively prevailed in consequence of misunderstanding the language of the bible in reference to future punishment. Are the wicked to be literally destroyed? is their existence to terminate with this life? are their sufferings merely mental? are they to be punished in flames of fire? These questions which have been agitated with much interest, and which have received various solutions, it is the design of this discourse to answer.
I. Future punishment does not consist in annihilation. Such a conclusion, the literal import
of destruction, of perishing, of perdition, justifies. “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction." "And shall utterly perish in their own corruption." But the expressions are figurative. They do not denote an abolition or annihilation of the soul, but moral ruin or the destruction of character and happiness. The same usage prevails in all languages. They are often said to be destroyed, who are only ruined in reputation, property and influence. That the literal sense of such terms is not applicable to future punishment, appears from the distinctions which are made in its degrees of severity, and from numerous expressions which represent lost men to be in a state of conscious existence. It is also found from an examination of the phraseology in question, that it is obviously used by the sacred writers in a metaphorical sense. "Whose judgment now a long time lingereth not, and their damnation (destruction) slumbereth not." The apostle refers to a punishment to be inflicted at the judgment day, when God will display his indignation by a marked distinction in its degrees of severity. "But chiefly them that walk after the flesh, in the lust of concupiscence and despise government."
Destruction occurs in the same sense in the ninth chapter of Romans ;-" What, if God willing to show his wrath and make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction." So far from rendering his wrath and power conspicuous by suspending an act of annihilation, God would forcibly illustrate both by an immediate execution. But if destruction signifies the infliction of pain, the sense is clear and impressive. Through the forbearance of God, the wicked have an opportunity of filling up, in their voluntary and inexcusable rebellion, the measure of their iniquities and of fitting themselves to be more striking examples of his displeasure against sin and of his power to punish it.
II. No phraseology of the bible exactly defines the nature of future punishment. We are not expressly informed in what it consists. Many persons however consider the language descriptive of the misery of lost men as philosophical definitions. We find in the history of fanaticism, women plucking out their eyes and cutting off their hands in supposed obedience to our Savior's command; If thine eye of fend thee, pluck it out, if thine hand or foot
offend thee, cut it off. The mind without training, is prone to stop at the literal import of words, and never to take their secondary or figurative sense. We speak of the future world in the language of the bible and in the sense of the sacred writers, not meaning that hell is literally a furnace of fire, but only that its sufferings are intense. The style of the language however makes the impression very extensive, that the pains of hell are exactly such as fire produces. Although our meaning is frequently explained, we cannot always guard against misapprehension, especially in the case of transient hearers. Hence the minds of ignorant men are sometimes embittered against the truth, by the suspicion that its teachers believe in the existence of a furnace of material fire and brimstone. But orthodox divines decide unanimously, that no literal and precise account of the condition of lost men is given in the bible. Their reasons shall now be stated.
1. Analogy makes it probable, that the descriptions of future punishment are figurative. Heaven is a place ineffably glorious and happy. We are taught its splendor, under the similitude of a city constructed of the richest materials
and in the most magnificent style; and its amenity, salubriousness and abundance, under the figure of a garden irrigated by perennial waters, warmed by a genial sun and yielding all kinds of delicious fruits. None interpret the language literally; no one imagines that any thing definite is known of spiritual existence or of the modes of enjoyment in that world. It is a place of great glory, of spotless purity and of unsullied serenity and bliss: but it is not revealed how its inhabitants receive and communicate ideas, how they pursue pleasing employments, how God and angels appear in immediate vision. If you thus judge of the heavenly world, why not apply the same rule of interpretation to descriptions of the place of punishment? why not regard them as intended to convey only a vivid picture of misery?
2. Almost all that is said of future existence must be in the language of approximation. The invisible world cannot be described except by comparison with things seen. If it is not in its modes of feeling and acting like what we here experience, a philosophical knowledge of it is unattainable.
3. The nature of spiritual existence, so far as