Sunday, September 26, 2010

Degrees of Heaven and Hell

This week's installment from The Fundamentals

by Sir Robert Anderson

We have seen then that man is a sinner in virtue both of what he is and what he does. We do what we ought not, and leave undone what we ought to do. For sin may be due to ignorance or carelessness, as well as to evil passions which incite to acts that stifle conscience and outrage law. And we have seen also that every sin gives rise to two great questions which need to be distinguished, though they are in a sense inseparable. The one finds expression in the formula, "guilty or not guilty," and in respect of this no element of limitation or degree is possible. But after verdict, sentence; and when punishment is in question, degrees of guilt are infinite.

It has been said that no two of the redeemed will have the same heaven; and in that sense no two of the lost will have the same hell. This is not a concession to popular heresies on this subject. For the figment of a hell of limited duration either traduces the character of God, or practically denies the work of Christ. If the extinction of being were the fate of the impenitent, to keep them in suffering for an aeon or a century would savor of the cruelty of a tyrant who, having decreed a criminal's death, deferred the execution of the sentence in order to torture him. Far worse indeed than this, for, ex hypothesi, the resurrection of the unjust could have no other purpose than to increase the capacity of their suffering. Or if we adopt the alternative heresy—that hell is a punitive and purgatorial discipline through which the sinner will pass to heaven—we disparage the atonement and undermine the truth of grace. If the prisonor gains his discharge by serving out his sentence, where does grace come in? And if the sinner's sufferings can expiate his sin, the most that can be said of the death of Christ is that it opened a short and easy way to the same goal that could be reached by a tedious and painful journey.

But further, unless the sinner is to be made righteous and holy before he enters hell—and in that case, why not let him enter heaven at once?—he will continue unceasingly to sin; and every fresh sin will involve a fresh penalty, his punishment can never end.

Next week, Sir Anderson deals with what he terms a "false argument" on this subject.

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