Theories as to a Future State
MR. BIRKS' VIEW
MR. BIRKS' view of the doctrine of eternal punishment was
first published about twelve years since, in a work entitled, "The Victory of
Divine Goodness," and has since been republished in a revised form in the
second edition of his "Difficulties of Belief;" in which it occupies the last
three chapters. It is to this exposition of it I shall, of course, exclusively
refer in my present attempt at an examination of it.
With the first of the three chapters in question we have nothing to do. It is occupied with a statement of the case as against the doctrines of annihilation and of universal salvation, with every line of which I can most fully and heartily concur. His second chapter opens with a view of the common ethical objections to the orthodox doctrine, to the consideration of which we have not yet arrived. We are still occupied with the Scripture doctrine itself; and it is only so far as Mr. Birks deals directly with this that we shall follow him in this chapter. Passing over all the rest of his argument, therefore, we will confine ourselves now to his propositions as to eternal judgment itself.
And as to the first of these we find ourselves again in entire agreement with him, that -
1. First, the second death is not the reign of Satan in a kingdom of his own, in which he reigns over those whom he has deceived, and actively torments them forever." We agree with him that -"there is the widest contrast between the present time of Satan's permitted activity and reign, and the future season of his punishment, when all his power to tempt and accuse the brethren, or to reign over evil men, will have ceased forever. It is not strange, but natural and certain, that sinners should have less freedom for active wickedness under the fiery anger of God than in the time of His forbearance and long suffering. Nothing can be more monstrous than the notion that, under the holy eye and righteous hand of the Supreme Judge, they can and will rebel more freely and fiercely than ever before. Such a prison, in which criminals should be allowed to cultivate their own wicked habits and practices to the uttermost, would be a foul reproach to any earthly government. How great, then, must be the evil of bringing this charge, without the least grain of Scripture evidence, nay, in the teeth of its express statements, against the government of the Righteous and Eternal King !"
Mr. Birks' second proposition is that -
2. "Again, the last judgment and the second death are one main part in a wise, holy, and perfect work of the God of love. . . The issues of judgment, however solemn, must be such that the all-wise, whose understanding is unreachable, the All-good, whose tender mercies are over all his works, can not only acquiesce in them, but even rejoice in them with a deep complacency of divine love. . . Now this revealed perfection of the whole work of God, when we reflect on it calmly, must throw a steady light on this mysterious and solemn subject of the second death. The first death is God's last and greatest enemy. It may be borne with for a time, but its continuance would be a fatal barrier to the dominion and glory of the Most High. 'God is not the God of the dead but of the living.' And hence that indignant sentence - 'O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction.' But the second death proceeds directly from the appointment of the Supreme Judge who is perfect both in wisdom and goodness. However terrible and solemn, it is his divine remedy for all that is most fearful and appalling in the actual or possible evil of a fallen and rebellious universe. . . The attempt to deepen its terrors by heaping up all kinds of moral and spiritual horrors, the unchecked ravings of fiendish malice, the blasphemous utterances of raging despair, and to see in it the stereotyped continuation of rebellion, hatred and blasphemy forever, is to reverse and deny the revealed object and aim of the work of Christ. 'For this purpose was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil' The grand purpose of the judgment which he will execute can never be to stereotype and eternize active rebellion against God, but to abolish it for evermore."
Now here again there is much of truth that needs to be remembered. Mr. Birks' system, however, begins to appear in the exaggeration of the contrast between the first and the second death. That they are contrasted has been already insisted on. Type and antitype, which is the relation in which they stand to one another, are always more or less contrasts. That the first death, moreover, would in its continuance be fatal to the fulfilment of the divine purpose, whether for saint or sinner, is simple and sure enough. As the infringement of the creative plan, it can but fulfil a temporary purpose and must eventually pass away; and the second death cannot be, therefore, the repetition of it. The resurrection which introduces the latter is the close of the former; and death is the last enemy, in this way, to be destroyed.
But if the last enemy, is it "the greatest"? Is there any warrant for opposing it in moral character and design to the final judgment? Surely none: in fact the very opposite. It is just as the second is, "the appointment of the Supreme Judge who is perfect both in wisdom and goodness." Nay, the Lord's parable of the rich man in hades gives as a view of the first death which (as related to the lost) resembles so closely the second, that many have confounded them. There is not the least warrant for giving to the first death the character of moral evil which we shall find Mr. Birks attaching to it still more plainly in the sequel.
Again, does he not go too far in deciding that the second death will work any moral change in those who are subject to it? That it will not "stereotype and eternize active rebellion against God" is no doubt true. That it will change "hatred" into aught else must be proved rather than asserted. The subjection of "infernal beings" is clearly taught. Every knee shall bow to Christ, and every tongue confess that he is Lord; that is true, for Scripture affirms it. "The works of the devil" shall be destroyed, but not his character changed. Were it so, it would naturally seem that universalism must be the true view for if the hearts of all were subject, eternal punishment would be a monstrosity; for it is not based upon the infinite guilt already contracted, but upon the persistency of moral character. 'He that is unjust, let him be unjust still, and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still."* Apart from all questions of exact demerit, could the God whom Scripture reveals pursue with everlasting rigor those who had been brought into heartfelt subjection to His will?
*Rev. xxii. 11.
Mr. Birks' third proposition is -
3. "The doom of the lost, we are further taught, will be the object of acquiescence and holy contemplation on the part of all the unfallen and redeemed. . . That doom, however solemn, can hardly be one of unmingled horror and darkness, much less of unbounding and eternal blasphemy, which is the object of complacency and holy adoration to saints and angels, free from all taint of mere selfishness, and moulded into the full and perfect resemblance of the divine love."
The question could scarcely be seriously raised as to whether the acts of Him whose ways are perfect will be the object of complacency to creatures brought into His moral likeness. "Their happiness is not," indeed, "made to depend either on their ignorance or their forgetfulness of the doom of the lost." Nor need we suppose that doom to be "unmingled horror and darkness," if by that is meant a doom which would itself be an evil, rather than one designed for the repression of evil. To the very lost themselves, it is not inconceivable, that that repression in itself should be a good - the only one, it may be, which remains a possibility in their case.
4. "Fourthly, on the day of judgment the honour due even to the wicked as God's creatures, and gifted by Him with high and noble powers, will, in some way or other, be still recognized by the righteous Judge."
Mr. Birks applies here the principle of Gen. ix. 6 and Deut. xxv. 2, 3, and seems to intimate that Christ as Judge will respect the divine image in man and the brotherhood of all humanity by some "measurement" or even "mitigation" of what might be the exact due. He does not positively say this, however; and we must not say it for him. "They were judged every man according to their works" is what Scripture says. We can say nothing else.
5. "Once more, the last judgment is the work of God's mercy as well as of His judicial righteousness. This is plainly taught us in those striking and impressive words of the Psalmist - 'Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy; for thou renderest to every man according to his works.' In the judgment of the righteous it is easy to see and feel the truth of this whispered message of God. . . Can it be true, even of the souls that perish, that there is mercy in that sentence which dooms them to the lake of fire? The deep thought which Plato dimly apprehended by the light of nature, seems here to receive a direct sanction from the Spirit of God. Punishment is set before us in the light of a divine medicine for the diseases of the soul. Compared with that most awful of curses, that evil should be left to work out fully its own terrible issues in the darkness of utter banishment from the divine presence, even the justice of God, however severe, is medicinal to guilty sinners. Their doom is awful, but a world abandoned to the reign of unrestrained and triumphant wickedness would be still more awful. The abyss, a bottomless pit, boundless in its breadth and depth and insatiable in its craving, is to be destroyed and abolished by the power of the Redeemer. The revealed scene of judgment. is not a sea, an ocean or abyss, but simply a lake of fire. It is mercy to the wicked to deny them the fatal power of adding sin to sin. It is mercy to keep them from the power of tormenting each other, by the free indulgence of their own sinful and hateful passions. It is mercy to force them back, even though captive and in chains, to the presence of that infinite goodness from which their own rebellions hearts would lead them farther and farther away, till they should lose themselves deeper and deeper in delusion and darkness forever."
I have not quoted all this for the sake of opposing it. There is much in it suggestive, much that would seem as at last probably true. Whether it be the real meaning of the psalm is another question; and if we read it in connection we shall perhaps hardly agree that the thought of mercy to the wicked shown in judgment itself is what it speaks of."* Yet the principle need not on that account be untrue; and be it mercy to the lost or not, it is assuredly mercy to the unfallen and redeemed, that evil should be repressed. But Mr. Birks' texts can hardly therefore prove what he quotes them for. The radical error in his view is exhibited in his next proposition.
*I have before given very briefly my own thought.
6. "Again the second death is a sequel of a resurrection, but a resurrection 'to shame and everlasting contempt' (Dan. xii. 2). It thus involves in its very nature contrasted elements. For resurrection is a work of redemption, a triumph over death, and a fruit of the atoning work of the world's Redeemer. But a resurrection to shame and contempt must also be a perpetual manifestation of the creature's moral emptiness, in contrast to the immutable and glorious perfection of Him who is the Only Wise and the Only Good."
I have already questioned the application of this passage in Daniel to literal resurrection; but that concerns us very little here, since evidently the resurrection of judgment would answer the purpose of Mr. Birks' argument equally well with that in Daniel. But the resurrection of judgment cannot be shown to be a work of redemption or a fruit of atonement. It is Christ's work doubtless, but not as redeeming; nor are the finally lost ever the redeemed. For the saints and for no others is resurrection "the adoption. the redemption of the body." For no others is it "a triumph over death." The purpose of God as to man indicated in creation, could not be intended permanently to be set aside by death, and the preservation of the spirit in death implies the resurrection of the body from the grave. The resurrection of which Christ was first-fruits is a "resurrection from among the dead." This is a "redemption" and this alone.
Rom. viii. 23. 1 Cor. xv. 54-57.
There are no "contrasted elements" therefore in the resurrection of judgment. That it is on the other hand a "perpetual manifestation of the creature's moral emptiness," and a needed one, there should be no doubt. The apostle suggests at least, that God was "willing to show His wrath, and make His power known" with regard to "the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction,"* and He who delighteth in mercy must have recognized a governmental necessity for this. And thus we may believe with Mr. Birks, that "their solemn doom, though no result of the choice of the Most High, whose love has displayed itself to the utmost in solemn warnings to deter sinners from the path of ruin, may yet be the object of His deep and holy acquiescence"; whether or not we are able to believe with him that the reason is "because in this way alone a ransomed universe can be upheld forever in a blessedness based on perfect humility, and capable on that very account of enlarging and unfolding itself without risk of fresh apostasy, for evermore."
*Rom. ix. 22.
This closes Mr. Birks' second chapter, and what he considers the "direct and open lessons" of the Bible on this subject. These direct teachings have certainly carried us no further than this, that the final doom of the wicked involves their enforced subjection to God. That it cannot consist with active rebellion is quite true and important also. That there is an absolute need for it, looked at from the side of mercy as well as righteousness, is still true. And that in some sense it may be mercy even to the lost themselves we have conceded likewise. So far we can go - no further. What we believe Mr. Birks has not shown, and cannot show, is that punishment of this kind is in any sense a redemptive or restorative process, - the only proper result of which would surely be an end of the punishment itself. This he does not believe in, although a mitigation of the punishment he does seem to suppose. I cannot see that Scripture gives even a hint of either. Certainly the texts we have thus far looked at do not.
But Mr. Birks believes that "the New Testament throws further and perhaps still clearer light on this solemn truth of eternal punishment, when we look below the surface, and strive to combine the indirect with the direct and open lessons which its sacred messages convey." And here -
1. Every created being may be viewed in two different aspects, personal and federal, or what it is of itself, and its character as part of a greater whole. This warp and woof runs through the whole of Scripture, and occasions a frequent antithesis in its statements of divine truth. Thus 'in Adam all die,' and still 'the soul that sinneth, it shall die.' In Christ 'all shall be made alive,' and still it is to those who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory, honour, and immortality, that God will render eternal life. The charge to the Galatians, 'Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ,' is followed at once by an opposite statement, as the attendant moral caution, 'For every one shall bear his own burden.' . . The same contrast, wherever selfishness is not complete, is found by experience in the elements which constitute human happiness and misery, joy and sorrow. In part they are purely and simply personal, but in part they arise from sympathy with the joys or sorrows of others, or from the contemplation of truths not personal, but objective and universal. . . . .
"Now all the statements of Scripture with respect to the future doom in judgment of the righteous and the wicked, have direct reference to personal conduct and personal retribution. The federal aspect, in these passages, does not appear . . . . But this truth, however solemn, and however inwrought into the doctrine of man's personal responsibility, cannot exclude a further truth, namely, the federal relation of all mankind to the Creator of the universe, and to Christ, the Head of every man, the Saviour of the world, who gave Himself a ransom for all men. One of these truths is no less deeply inwrought into the texture of God's word than the other. It must reveal its reality and its power, in some way or other, amidst all the solemn and tremendous realities of the coming judgment."
Mr. Birks must surely feel that that assertion is vague enough at least. The difficulty in dealing with it is precisely its vagueness. And yet is it after all too definite in supplying what Scripture, as it should seem for some good reason, entirely ignores. He owns that the federal aspect does not appear in the passages which speak of future judgment. He must own that whereas, e.g., the "bear ye one another's burdens" (which he calls that), applies to the present life, the assurance as to the future is strictly personal: "every one shall hear his own burden.' Is it allowable to say that a certain "truth" must reveal its reality and power in regard to that from which Scripture seems to exclude it altogether? Doubtless the Creator of the universe will not forget even in judgment that men are the creatures of His hand; and Christ the Head of all men, to whom all judgment is committed because He is the Son of Man,* will not forget His own humanity. But it is vain to bring this in to modify in any way the positive statements of the word. It is not as Saviour of the world, that He takes His place upon the throne of judgment; nor can the ransom for all avail any more for those adjudged to Gehenna. Mr. Birks does not, I suppose, think that it can; yet it is hard to say why he brings in thoughts that are incongruous to his subject. For the judged, through their own willfulness, the ransom has not availed. Had it done so, they had not been judged. Salvation and condemnation are opposed in terms, and to argue as if those condemned were still in some fractional measure saved, is at least to suppose that Scripture has been deficient in not saying so and to assume a competency to make up the deficiency.
*John v. 27.
2. "Secondly, the second death is a work of the God of truth, by which pride and falsehood are to be abolished out of the moral universe. . . The fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, must be the destruction of guilty pride, when it has become in a manner consubstantiate with the spirit, and can be overcome in no gentler way than by the ever-enduring strokes of divine judgment. 'Them that walk in pride he is able to abase.' "
Only it is hard to say how far pride is "abolished" out of the heart, when it needs such "ever-enduring strokes" to keep it down. For my part I can accept the former statement, when interpreted by the latter.
3. "Thirdly, the second death is a work of the God of love, wherein He displays His holy anger against every sinner whose heart and life have been marked by utter selfishness, and the entire absence of genuine love to God and men."
I can have nothing to object to this.
4. "Fourthly, the resurrection to judgment, like the resurrection of life, is one part of the redeeming work of Christ."
This is a former statement, and the main one of the whole. It is here, however, more fully argued out, and we shall again look at it. He says -
"The two main issues of judgment, however great their contrast, have one feature common to both. They follow a resurrection. Hence the apostle unites them in one common statement, before he marks the contrast between 'them that are Christ's,' and all others. 'For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.' The first death in every case has come through the sin of Adam. The life-restoring resurrection is to come in every case through the power and work of the second Adam, the Lord from heaven. The judgment of the lost is based on a present work of the Redeemer, in which they share with the saved, and on a victory over death, wrought by Christ, and depending on the power of His atoning sacrifice and resurrection from the dead. Their bodies are restored from the earlier dominion of the grave, and the dominion of death, so far, is wholly abolished."
But Mr. Birks makes no sufficient distinction between the resurrection of judgment and the resurrection of life, of the latter of which the chapter from which he quotes throughout speaks. Had he begun his quotation a little earlier he would have seen that the apostle, instead of beginning with a general statement of resurrection which would include both classes of the dead, first of all speaks of them that "sleep" in Jesus, of whom (and of whom alone) He is "first-fruits." "But now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first-fruits of them that sleep." These sleepers are not all the dead. They are those for whom death has been annulled, and changed into a refreshment and rest only from cares and conflicts of this life in anticipation of the endless morning. Of their resurrection is Christ the first-fruits, for they alone are raised in " the image of the heavenly" - the Lord from heaven; and " if the first-fruit be holy, the lump is also holy."* It is impossible to make Christ in any sense the "first-fruits" of the lost.
*Rom xi. 16.
But then this precedes what Mr. Birks calls the "common statement," which is appended to it: "for since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."
Now are all men "in Christ" to be thus quickened or made alive by Him? Let any one compare Scripture, and see if there be a doubt. Nay, Mr. Constable has long ago been reminding us that the very word used here for "made alive" is expressly the word used by the same apostle, where he confines it to the saints: "if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead, shall also quicken your mortal bodies by (or rather, because of) His Spirit that dwelleth in you." Thus although the wicked will surely rise, the apostle will not call that "quickening" or "life-giving," which is not the resurrection of life. And we are doubly told that "all in Christ" are not all men universally.
Rom viii. 1; xii. 5; xvi. 7; 1 Cor. i. 2, 30; xv. 18; 2 Cor. i. 21; v 17; xii 2; Gal. i. 22 etc
Even where he says "in Adam all die," although that is true abstractedly of all mankind, the whole context at least (if not the construction also) would seem to necessitate the limiting it to those of whom the apostle has just been speaking. "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that sleep; for since by man came death," and thus they are dead, "by man came also the resurrection of the dead," and they shall live; "for as in Adam they all die, even so in Christ shall they all be made alive."
There is not the least ground then for the assertion that the lost share with the saved in what is the fruit of atonement, or are made alive in Christ as raised from the dead. They are brought forth by His power to judgment. Judgment, and not grace, claims their resurrection. It may display His victory over death, but is in nowise theirs. It is not a life-resurrection but judgment-resurrection.
Mr. Birks reads the lesson of that judgment-resurrection thus: -
"The the first death the dissolution of the body, and its corruption, was only the type, sign, and parable of the deeper curse resting on the spirit, when it had wandered or was driven away from the presence of Him who is Light and Love. And when the dead are raised by the power of Christ, this correspondence cannot wholly cease. When death and hell are cast into the lake of fire, the souls, even of the lost, can remain no longer under the curse of utter vanity. They will glorify their Maker, even amidst the fires of penal judgment. To glorify God is the great end for which every creature was made. If the dealings of God with any creature were such as to justify a charge of unnatural cruelty or excessive and needless severity, God could not possibly be glorified thereby, but rather the divine glory would be obscured, deeply clouded, or blotted out and wholly destroyed. To glorify God through shame and punishment, compared with the bliss of the redeemed and holy, must be an infinite and irreparable loss. But to glorify Him in any way, however solemn and mournful, when contrasted with the reign of that death, which is God's enemy, and the curse of eternal vanity, darkness, and corruption, may be, even to the souls of the lost, a real, and perhaps even in some respects, an infinite gain."
Thus in Mr. Birks' view, the judgment which comes after death, is really, and perhaps infinitely, better than the death which precedes it! The usual comparative estimate of the two is here reversed. Death is comparatively the curse, judgment the blessing! The proof will need to be convincing that will bring many to believe this. What is Mr. Birks' proof? It is here -
"The dissolution of the body, and its corruption, was only the type, sign, and parable of the deeper curse resting on the spirit, when it had wandered or was driven away from the presence of Him who is Light and Love. And when the dead are raised by the power of Christ, this correspondence cannot wholly cease."
That is, when the type is gone, the thing typified must be gone with it. But to what state then does "where their worm dieth not" apply? There is the very figure of death and corruption. It should apply, according to Mr. Birks, to the intermediate state alone. Yet I think he will hardly deny that it applies to the final - Gehenna being expressly named. That is, the figures drawn from death are applied expressly where according to him they should not and could not be.
And is the soul of the lost more away from the presence of God in death than in hell? What is the flame in which the rich man is tormented? What is the place of which the Psalmist says, "If I make my bed in sheol, behold, Thou art there"? What is it which the Preacher announces when he says, "The spirit shall return to God who gave it"? Is distance from God simple locality, or moral condition rather? If the latter be at least the essential part, will resurrection bring the lost soul in any measure back to God, as it should, if type and antitype are to correspond synchronically?
Again, are those "no longer under the curse of utter vanity," who are "destroyed body and soul in hell"? no longer under "darkness," to whom is reserved" the mist of darkness" and the "blackness of darkness forever"?
Or is "the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" the day in which the lighter judgment of personal offences shall replace the far heavier one which comes upon us through the offence of another?
To find, however, the root of Mr. Birks' view we must turn to his chapter on Atonement in the same book, where he is answering the question, "what, apart from the atonement, is the state of mankind before God? What is their legal standing, and the nature of the curse and sentence under which they lie?" Here he rightly decides that "the death meant" in the law "must be the same which was threatened in Paradise, and which entered the world through Adam's sin." This "in all Scripture," he says, "is ascribed to the soul, even when separated from the body. 'In death there is no remembrance of Thee; and who will give Thee thanks in the pit?"' But that does not show that death is ascribed distinctly to the soul. It shows that there is such a thing as a death state, but not surely that the soul is dead. Death and hades are, on the contrary, named together where body and soul are distinctly in view, as we have seen. Mr. Birks' idea of death is that it is a physical condition of body, and a spiritual condition of soul as well. But this is incongruous and unjustifiable. Dying is the separation of soul and body - dissolution, decease, departure. The death state is the state of separation, the result of the dying. A dead man may be a corpse or a spirit. But as death affects the bodily organism in a way it cannot the spirit, we can speak of a dead body and cannot speak of a dead spirit. Thus Mr. Birks' representation of death is not only without Scripture, but contrary to it. And this destroys the very foundation of his argument. But he goes on" -
"The words temporal and eternal, often applied to death, tend rather to mislead, than to explain the true nature of this contrast. The first death is temporal, because its future abolition is a revealed promise; but in its own nature, apart from Christ's redemption, it would be everlasting. Neither the faculties of the creature, nor the nature of sin, nor the justice of God, assign it any limit or bound. It is due to a mighty work of redemption alone, that it is swallowed up in eternal victory."
As to victory over death, every Christian will agree with Mr. Birks. For the rest he has produced no Scripture. On the other hand I have sought to show that the first death is in its own nature provisional and temporary. In speaking of annihilation Mr. Birks has truly and forcibly said: -
"The gifts and calling of God are 'without repentance.' If then a conscious being, not dependent on bodily organs, and fitted in itself to endure forever, has been given, and should afterwards be withdrawn, this would seem to reverse a great law of God's moral government;"
And we may extend this argument further. For man was made no mere spirit, but a living soul, which implies, as we have seen, a bodily organism. Could the body finally and forever cease to be, and yet God's gift be without repentance ? That death came in through man's sin, while of course true, does not more touch that, than it does the annihilation question; for it, too, would have come in through sin. The argument plainly requires that what man is by creation, he must continue to be ever, although a temporary discipline of death would not be excluded.
And with this Scripture perfectly harmonizes It does so in the fact that death reigns everywhere through one offence: over those who have not sinned after the similitude of Adam, and over the youngest babe who has never sinned at all. Did God for this one offence condemn forever all Adam's unborn posterity? Theology may say so; but not the word. Could the penalty for Adam's sin upon all his descendants be worse than that of their own, as Mr. Birks puts it?
Scripture argues resurrection not merely from the fact of atonement, but from the existence of the person after death. This, as we have seen, is the Lord's argument with the Sadducees, and confirmed by one who holds partially their views today.
And again, the judgment for the deeds done in the body waits as of necessity for the body to rise again. To say resurrection of the wicked results from atonement, is to say that that judgment which requires it is the fruit of atonement also; and that had not Christ died for men, God would never have judged men for their sins.
While yet they would have suffered more severely, as well as indiscriminately, as the result of Adam's sin, than they now will for their own!
We shall now be able to see without much argument the vitiating error in Mr. Birks' further statement: -
"This death, the sentence of the law, extends to the whole man, both soul and body. To see its nature as respects the soul, we must reflect on its work with reference to the body. One is the invisible sign and sacrament of the other. The body is then parted from the soul, its life; and being thus parted, becomes the prey of inward corruption. So also death is the separation of the soul from God, the true source of life; and all the confusion, chaos, and moral corruption and dissolution which follows that awful separation. Without, there is banishment from the presence of God, and from all the light of His favour and blessing. Within, there will follow the unrestrained working of moral corruption, degrading, perverting, desecrating all the faculties and powers of the immortal spirit. Sin would thus become, under the name of death, a 'finished' evil, its own ever-growing torment, and the soul sink deeper and deeper in an abyss of hopeless misery."
It is evident at once that Mr. Birks does not derive this view from Scripture, but from his own hypothesis that the effects of death upon the body are typical of its effects upon the soul. And in carrying this thought out, he takes what are separately true and Biblical ideas - and which we are accustomed to speak of as death physical, and death spiritual and joins them together in indissoluble union. But surely Mr. Birks can scarcely have followed this out to its legitimate result. Can he mean, for instance, that there is no such thing as being "dead while living"? that spiritual death never takes place before corporeal? or that it does necessarily when this does? To the latter question he may perhaps easily answer that the saints are saved from this part of the penalty. But if so, why are they not saved from the whole, if the penalty be one? if it be but one and the same death, how is it they die at all?
If there are those now "dead" spiritually, while living, do these die again spiritually, when their bodies die?
Or what is the difference between these two spiritual deaths?
I can scarcely persuade myself; while I ask these questions, (imperatively called for, as they seem, by Mr. Birks' position) - that I am not doing him some unconscious injustice in imputing to him thoughts which involve consequences so strange, and which it would not be hard to carry a good deal further. I should be happy could I conceive the possibility of having mistaken his meaning. His words will at any rate speak for themselves.
Mr. Birks having got so far really without Scripture, at last makes an appeal to it
"On this view we may see the force of the contrasted figures, by which the first and second death are portrayed. One is 'the lake of fire,' solemn indeed and most awful, yet bounded in its range, shut in by firm land on every side. The other is 'the deep,' 'the abyss,' 'the bottomless pit,' evil reigning, rioting, growing, deepening without limit and without end, in its fatal descent, farther and farther from light, happiness, and heaven. By the sentence of the law, fulfilled without atonement or redemption, mankind once fallen would be shut out from God's presence, and sink, and sink, and sink forever in this abyss of hopeless and endless ruin. There would have been, through ages without end, the awful reality of a God-dishonouring, God-hating, God-blaspheming, self-tormenting, God-abandoned universe. Such death is the wages of sin, its due desert, and the issue to which it naturally tends. It is the fatal harvest from the seeds of moral corruption harbored in the soul. 'Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.' "
All this out of the solitary word "abyss"! Mr. Birks has too strongly poetical an imagination to have always a sober judgment He does not even give us data on which a judgment may be formed. "Abyss" means "bottomless": so far is clear. And it is a figure, Mr. Birks says, by which the first death is portrayed. That is not so clear. When the devils beseech the Lord that He would not command them to go out into the "deep" - this is the same word "abyss." It is the bottomless pit out of which the Apocalyptic locusts come, and their angel is Abaddon or Apollyon, "the destroyer." It is the place out of which the mystic "beast" ascends; and finally that in which Satan is shut up for the millennium. These are all the occurrences in Scripture save one, in which the apostle asks, "Who shall descend into the deep; that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead."*
*Luke vii. 31; Rev. ix 1, 2, 11; xi 7; xvii. 8 xx. 1, 3; Rom. x. 7.
Now it seems as if it must be from the last passage that Mr. Birks has derived his idea; and yet it is one most inappropriate for his purpose. Whatever else it were, certainly the abyss could not be to the Lord what he has pictured it; could not be in that sense, an "abyss.' Where he finds it picture the death state of the lost it is hard to imagine. The devils have no death state. Satan is not shut up a thousand years in death. The "locusts" are not a symbol of the dead; nor Apollyon the king of the dead. The beast, it is true, is said to come up out of the abyss, and before that, it "was, and is not" - so that here the death state might be figured; but it could scarcely furnish forth Mr. Birks' picture. And here is the whole array of Scripture!
He does in point of fact make the Lord endure there, rather than "on the tree," the "extreme of separation from His heavenly Father." This is thoroughly unscriptural. It displaces the cross, it evacuates the Lord's cry, "It is finished," and mars the threefold witness of the Spirit, the water, and the blood. It is a view which has absolutely no support, save in a fanciful interpretation of such passages as lxxxviii. 4-7; lxix. 15; xviii. 5-15; and is against the plain sense of every passage which ascribes atoning efficacy to the blood of the cross: Rom. v. 9; vi. 6; Gal. iii. 13; Eph. 1. 7; ii. 18-16; Col. i. 21, 22; ii 14; 1 Pet. ii. 21, etc.
It can scarcely need to follow out at length a mere poetic fancy, for such it is. I shall add but two thoughts:
1. that in this way the sentence of the law (as he conceives it) would involve a "God-dishonouring and God-abandoned universe" - God would have been tied by it to His own dishonour! the Governor of the Universe bound not to interfere with the development of evil under His own eyes!
2. I would again refer to the Lord's parable of the rich man in hades. Here, if anywhere, we should have the awful abyss of Mr. Birks' imagination. Instead of which we find a soul in God's hand, enduring His wrath; but certainly not the "reigning, rioting, growing, deepening evil," which, we are told, is the character of the first death.
The whole view is (I am compelled to say) incongruous and unscriptural, reversing the proportions of death and judgment, of the result of another's sin and of men's own. It is lacking in moral harmony as in Scriptural cohesion.
There are two more arguments we must briefly look at. Mr. Birks' fifth proposition is, that as -
"the love of Christ has a length and breadth and depth and height, that passeth knowledge," its infinite depth must be manifested forever in the guilty and condemned, towards whom it may be shown in the perpetual yearnings of a deep and true compassion. This, he thinks, "may pierce through their conscience, and pervade their whole being, even amid their still abiding consciousness of deepest loss and eternal shame. . . The truth of God seems to give a most solemn assurance that the penal sentence shall never be reversed. The depth of a love that passeth knowledge gives an equal assurance that their doom shall not however terrible and mournful, one of unmitigated misery, but such that even here the glory of the divine goodness, and those tender mercies of God which are over all His works, shall be revealed for evermore."
This, he believes too, accords with God's title as Saviour of all men; and though unbelievers are not saved from judgment, the second death, and the fire that is not quenched, they will be saved from temporal death and corruption, from the curse of hopeless vanity, from the "abyss" - " will they not be saved from that utter, unmingled, hopeless misery, which no ray of comfort or relief of any kind breaks a dreary solitude of everlasting despair? Will they not be saved, in some strange and mysterious but real sense, when their irremovable sorrow finds beneath it a still lower depth of divine compassion, and the sinful creature in its most forlorn estate, and in its utter shame, encounters the amazing vision of tender, condescending and infinite love"?
Of this Mr. Birks' last argument seems little more than a repetition. It is that all men stand in relationship to God under three distinct characters as Creator, Moral Governor of the world, and Redeemer.
"The contrast between the obedient and disobedient, the faithful and unbelieving, in their relation to God as the righteous Judge, cannot set aside their common relation to Him as the bountiful Creator of all men, and the God of grace towards all who are sunk in guilt or misery. . . Sinners, to whom the Son of God was given, for whom He bore the cross, and died accursed, over whom He wept tears of pity, and towards whom there have been patient yearnings of God's infinite compassion, and of His divine long-suffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance, can surely never cease, even under the strokes of judgment, and in their depth of utter shame, to be encircled evermore by the infinite compassions of that holy and perfect Being, whose very name and nature is Love."
To such arguments the answer has already been given, inasmuch as they are based upon the view previously advanced, that the strokes of judgment will not only effectively put an end to active opposition, but remove the enmity of the heart itself and force - to use an expression which sufficiently refutes the view that it expresses, - a willing subjection to God. Grant once the heart so changed, who could refuse the thought of the infinite pity and love of God coming in with abundant and ready help! The difficulty in this case would not be to go as far as Mr. Birks in this, but how not to go much farther. Just as all that have known God's grace have experienced in their own case, whatever the natural impotence for good, it could not be an insurmountable obstacle to recovery were the will once with that divine will which has all competence in itself. But if of some on earth it could be said, as having in the face of light and knowledge rejected Christ, that it was "impossible to renew them again unto repentance." how much more must that be said of those whom even infinite goodness of God has to give up to "eternal judgment"! It is not, God forbid, that His compassions fail! They are necessarily held back by the obduracy of the evil. That "amazing vision of tender, condescending, and infinite love" of which Mr. Birks speaks, could not be beheld by those for whom nothing less than the ever-enduring strokes of judgment will suffice. We dissent from his view, not because we think less of the mercy of the Redeemer, but because we are assured that if it could at any time throughout the ages of eternity win the heart to God, no arbitrary limit of probation passed could avail to shut out from it a mercy more effective than he pleads for. And because we are assured that what is impossible for mercy to effect is not more possible to be the work of judgment.
We are now to look at the ethical question.
Go To Chapter Forty-Two
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