The Nineteenth Century
Unitarianism, whose central tenets were a belief in the unity (not Trinity) of God and a denial of the divinity of Christ, flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and influenced many Christians in other denominations. Most Unitarians denied the natural immortality of the soul and eternal punishment, instead emphasizing future physical resurrection and progress towards a restored paradise. Some suggested an intermediate state after death when the wicked would be purified of evil. The statement by Unitarian minister Henry Giles in 1839 expressed the sentiment of numerous others in the latter half of the century: “There is no room in the same universe for a good God and an eternal hell.”
Thomas Erskine (1788–1870)
Erskine was a well-known and well-loved Scottish thinker who believed that the essence of sin is self-worship and that hell is a state of being—a condition of solipsistic misery. God’s abhorrence of sin, and therefore his purpose to destroy it, is the only ground of a sinner’s hope. The only punishment we face is the repentance and self-denial that raises us above our sin into the bliss of loving God: “Salvation does not consist in the removal of punishment, but in the wiling acceptance of it—in dying to self and living unto God.” If anyone is in hell it is because he put himself there by refusing to enter heaven: “So long, therefore, as a man chooses to keep his sin, so long as he refuses to allow the forgiving love of God to enter his heart . . . if he continues in this state through eternity, he must through eternity be a child of wrath, abiding in outer darkness.” However, Erskine elsewhere asserted that since the creature has no existence independent of its Creator, “It is impossible that I should be separated from him without ceasing to exist.”
Frederick Denison Maurice (1805–1872)
Considered one of the most important theologians of 19th-century England, Maurice was discharged from his teaching post at King’s College, London, in 1853 after his Theological Essays created a scandal. In the concluding essay, “On Eternal Life and Eternal Death,” he argued that the word “eternal” in the New Testament means being outside of time. Eternal life and eternal punishment refer to a state of being, or more precisely, to a quality of relationship to God, rather than to an everlasting duration. The condition of being alienated from God is its own punishment. Eternal death is thus a present reality for all those caught in a state of sin, from which Christ delivers them into an ongoing experience of new divine life. It is the sinful self at the center of existence which is the worst torture for the convicted soul, worse than any external legal penalty.
Maurice could not believe that God would condemn to everlasting death those who did not know of the earthly Jesus, or that human resistance could ever be stronger than the universal love of God. He stopped just short of denying the possibility of a never-ending hell but hinted that the infinite love of God must be greater and deeper than human corruption (he embraced a kind of “hopeful universalism”): “I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death: I dare not lose faith in that love. I sink into death, eternal death, if I do. I must feel that this love is encompassing the universe. More about it I cannot know. But God knows. I leave myself and all to Him.”
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
The English philosopher found it morally contradictory to believe in a God who is loving and yet “who could make a Hell: and who could create countless generations of human beings with the certain foreknowledge that he was creating them for this fate. Is there any moral enormity which might not be justified by imitation of such a Deity?” He retorted, “I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to Hell for not so calling him, to Hell will I go.”
Thomas Rawson Birks (1810–1883)
Thomas Rawson Birks, a leading English Evangelical and a moderate Calvinist, argued that those in hell, while cut off from the direct presence of God, would still have the opportunity to passively observe and enjoy God’s goodness. He also rejected the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement and widened the scope of salvation to include those outside the church.
J. W. Colenso (1814–1883)
The missionary movement opened the eyes of Europe to the diversity of cultures and religions in the world and, for some, made hellfire preaching not only morally objectionable but unrealistic and ineffective. In his commentary St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, J. W. Colenso, the Bishop of Natal in South Africa, put forth Pauline support for the idea of post-mortem salvation: “I entertain the ‘hidden hope’ that there are remedial processes, when this life is ended, of which at present we know nothing, but which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will administer, as He in His Wisdom shall see to be good.”
Colenso’s ideas reflect the influence Darwinism was having upon Christian theology at the time. He believed not only that there will be gradations of punishment after death, but also that these punishments would be remedial in function and would effect a growth or progress toward spiritual enlightenment. His reaction against eternal punishment was based in part on his repugnance for the hypocrisy of Christians who, asserting that heathens would burn forever in hell, lived complacent and happy lives without lifting a finger to remove the burden of eternal doom from those they condemned to it.
F. W. Robertson (1816 –1853)
Like F. D. Maurice, F. W. Robertson, the minister of Trinity Chapel in Brighton, saw eternal life or death in terms of quality of existence, not temporal duration. His confirmation class catechism included the following question and answer:
“Q. Why is a correct faith necessary to salvation?”
“A. Because what we believe becomes our character, forms part of us, and character is salvation or damnation; what we are, that is our heaven or our hell. Every sin bears its own punishment.”
Edward White (1819–1898)
An English Congregational minister, White was a leading proponent of “conditional immortality,” an attempt to find a middle road between eternal punishment and universalism, both of which assumed the natural immortality of the human soul. Conditionalists argued that the soul is mortal and that immortality is a gift from Christ to the redeemed. Therefore, the wicked will eventually be annihilated.
One of the most important publications expounding this view was White’s book Life in Christ. White avoided the term “annihilationism” and, unlike some conditionalists, suggested that there was an intermediate state of the soul between bodily death and the “second death” at the Last Judgment, when the souls of the wicked would cease to exist. Drawing on Darwinian theory, he described the gift of immortality as a kind of moral natural selection: “The New Testament does not teach the survival of the strongest, but the survival of the fittest’’—i.e., those who have faith in God’s redeeming love.
At a time when the spiritual fate of those in other cultures was much debated, White rejected the doctrine of eternal punishment as the impetus for missions. “There is nothing less than an INFINITE MORAL DIFFERENCE between the character of a Being who WILL torture a...man or woman...through boundless eternity, and that of one who will NOT.”
Conditionalism, he believed, avoided the moral problem of a loving God who punishes people eternally, while still providing an urgent motivation for evangelism.
James Baldwin Brown (1820–1884)
Brown was very influenced by the evolutionary ideas popular at the time and considered the Fall not a fracture or interruption of creation but a step in the creation’s development towards a higher state of being. He believed that punishment for sin arises from the state of sinfulness itself—defined primarily as self-idolatry and self-absorption. The pit of hell is “the grave of a living soul” stifling in its own sin and tormented by the knowledge of itself. True repentance arises, not out of sorrow over having violated a law and fear of being punished, but out of love for the divine Father.
George MacDonald (1824–1905)
Pastor, novelist, fantasy writer, and disciple of F. D. Maurice, George MacDonald is best known today for his profound influence on C. S. Lewis and other 20th-century Christian writers. The beginning point of MacDonald’s theology was the universal love of God who “is always doing his best for every man,” working all things together for the salvation of each of his children. Citing Hebrews 12:29, MacDonald argued that the “consuming fire” of God is in fact the inexorable purity of his love, which burns away all impurities in the beloved, destroying that which is unlovable: “God loves them so that he will burn them clean.” All punishment exists for the sake of repentance.
Hell, for MacDonald, is a mental state of being which begins on earth for many people and may continue after death in a much more acute form. The person in hell is just as much an object of God’s love as the holiest saint, but this person, in resisting God, experiences that love as wrath. Hell is not a place of never-ending torment but a temporary condition of purgatorial suffering. “I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing . . . I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children.”
For MacDonald, the darkest pit of hell existed for one purpose: to bring the prodigal to the knees of his Father in self-loathing and new-found love. “God in the dark can make a man thirst for the light, who never in the light sought but the dark.” Eventually, MacDonald implied, even the devil will relent and turn back to his Master, and hell itself will be destroyed. Finally, the Father’s love will be victorious.
Essays and Reviews
the Oxford Declaration
The highly controversial volume Essays and Reviews (1860) thrust the issues of the inspiration of Scripture and eternal punishment into public debate. Liberal thinker Henry Bristow Wilson argued that, at a time when Western Christians were discovering more and more about the non-Christian world, it was necessary to reconsider traditional dogmas about eternal punishment. He suggested as an alternative the possibility of further spiritual development after death, a kind of “second chance” eschatology.
In response to the Essays and Reviews controversy, 11,000 Church of England clergymen signed the Oxford Declaration in 1864 affirming their belief “that the ‘punishment’ of the ‘cursed,’ equally with the ‘life’ of the ‘righteous,’ is ‘everlasting.’”
F. W. Farrar (1831–1903)
E. B. Pusey (1800–1882)
In the late 1870s and 1880s, a well-known debate over the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment took place between F. W. Farrar, canon of Westminster, and E. B. Pusey, leader of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. Farrar preached a series of sermons that he later published in the book Eternal Hope. In it he affirmed what he believed to be the core of the biblical view of hell: “That there is terrible retribution upon impenitent sin both here and hereafter; that without holiness no man can see the Lord; that sin cannot be forgiven till it is forsaken and repented of; that the doom which falls on sin is both merciful and just.”
He rejected, however, the ideas that hell is a place of eternal, physical torment and that the majority of human beings will end up there. He wanted to leave open the possibility of repentance after death. Many people interpreted the book as teaching universalism, despite the fact that Farrar claimed he was rejecting both universalism and conditionalism.
In rebuttal, Pusey published a scholarly defense of the church’s traditional teaching, What Is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment? Pusey argued that the orthodox doctrine of hell does not require us to believe that punishment will be physical, nor does it predict how many will be lost or saved. We may never know how many people are in a state of grace or repent on their deathbeds. Of those who have never heard the gospel, he claimed, “each soul will be judged as it responded or did not respond to the degree of light which He bestowed on it.” Against Farrar, he affirmed that hell is eternal and that the fate of each person is determined at death.
Seventh-day Adventists (Formally established in 1863)
The Seventh-day Adventist Church grew out of the Millerite movement in America during the 19th century (William Miller had predicted the Second Coming of Christ during 1843 and 1844). Their name reflects their observance of Saturday (the seventh day) as the Sabbath and their emphasis on the imminent premillennial return of Christ.
One of the distinguishing beliefs of Adventists is conditional immortality or annihilationism: Humans are an indivisible unity and do not have an immortal soul that exists after death. God alone is immortal and grants eternal life to the redeemed at the resurrection when Christ returns. Those who die enter into an unconscious state until then, and the unredeemed will be resurrected at the end of the Millennium, when the fire of God will destroy them.
By Jennifer Trafton
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #100+ in 2011]
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