1. The belief in eternal punishment is losing ground so rapidly, from day to day, that the gift of prophecy is not needed to enable us to foresee its extinction at no distant time. It has been combated by arguments so powerful and so unanswerable that it seems almost superfluous to trouble ourselves with disproving a fallacy that is dying out of itself. Nevertheless, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that this doctrine, in spite of its declining influence, is still the rallying-point of the adversaries of progress, the article of their creed which they defend most obstinately, precisely because they feel it to be its most vulnerable aspect, and because they perceive how dangerous a breach its fall will make in the theological edifice. Regarded from this point of view, the doctrine in question may still be held to merit serious examination.
2. The doctrine of eternal punishment, like that of a physical Hell, was useful while the intellectual and moral backwardness of humankind required that they should be held in check by the fear of incurring the doom thus held up before their imagination. While they remained at too low a point of advancement to be efficaciously acted upon by the prospect of merely moral suffering, it is evident that they would have been as little restrained by the idea of any merely temporary punishment; and it is equally evident that they would have been incapable of comprehending the justice of graduated and proportionate penalties, because they could not have appreciated the various shades of right or wrong action, or the relative importance of either extenuating or aggravating circumstances.
3. The nearer humans are to the primitive state, the more closely they are allied to materiality; for the moral sense is precisely the faculty of the human mind, which is the last developed. For this reason, they could only form to themselves a very imperfect idea of God and of God’s attributes, and an equally vague conception of the future life. They molded their idea of the Deity upon themselves. For them, God was an absolute sovereign, all the more formidable because invisible, like a despotic monarch who, hidden within his palace, never allows himself to be seen by his subjects. Having no conception of moral force, they could only conceive of God’s power as being of a physical nature; they imagined God wielding the thunderbolt, moving in the midst of lightning and tempests, and scattering ruin and desolation around Him after the fashion of earthly conquerors. A God of love and of mercy would not have seemed to them to be a God, but a feeble being unable to secure obedience. On the contrary, implacable vengeance, chastisements the most terrific and unending were quite in harmony with the idea they had thus formed to themselves of the Divinity, and offered nothing repugnant to their minds. Being, themselves, implacable in their resentments, cruel to their enemies, pitiless for the vanquished, it appeared to them perfectly natural that God, whose power was superior to their own, should be still more implacable, cruel and pitiless than themselves.
For the influencing of such human beings, a religious belief in harmony with their rude and violent nature was necessary. A religion of spirituality, of love and of charity, would have been impossible with the brutality of their usages and passions. The Draconian legislation of Moses, which represented the Divine Being as a jealous and revengeful God, scarcely sufficed to keep within bounds a stiff-necked people committed to his charge; the gentle doctrine of Jesus would have awakened no echo in their hearts and would have been powerless to influence their action.
4. In proportion as the spiritual sense of humankind has become developed, the veil of materiality has become less opaque, and human beings have become better fitted to understand spiritual things; but this change has only taken place very gradually. At the time when Jesus came among them, it was possible for him to proclaim a merciful God, to speak of his “kingdom” as not being “of this world,” to say to men and women, “Love one another,” and “Return good for evil;” whereas, under the Mosaic Law, God was represented as sanctioning the principle of revenge summed up in the dictum, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
What, then, was the state of the souls who were living upon the Earth at the time of Jesus? Were they souls who had been newly created and were then incarnated for the first time? If so, God must have created in the time of Jesus, souls of better quality than those that God created in the time of Moses. But, if that were the case, what has become of those earlier-created souls? Have they been condemned to languish forever in the brutishness of the primitive era? Simple common sense suffices to show us that such a supposition is untenable. No; the souls incarnated upon the Earth, in the time of Jesus, were the same souls who, after having lived here under the empire of the Law of Moses, had gradually acquired, in successive existences posterior to that period, a degree of development sufficient to enable them to understand a teaching of a higher nature, and who, at the present day, are sufficiently advanced to be able to receive the still higher teaching now being given by Christ’s command, in fulfillment of his promise.
5. At the time of Christ’s appearance, it was impossible for him to reveal to humanity all the truth in regard to their future. He says, expressly, “I have many things to tell you, but you could not understand them; and I am therefore compelled to speak to you in parables.” In regard to all points of morality, that is to say, all the duties of all human beings to their fellows, his teaching was explicit, because, as those duties refer to the relations of daily life, he knew that men and women would be able to understand him; in regard to all other matters, he confined himself to sowing, under the form of allegory, the germs of the truths that were destined to be developed at a later period.
The nature of future rewards and punishments was one of those points which were thus left by him in abeyance. He could not inculcate, especially in regard to future punishment, ideas so diametrically opposed to those held by men and women of his time. He came to trace out new duties for the human race, to inculcate charity and the love of one’s neighbor in place of the spirit of hatred and of vengeance, to substitute abnegation for selfishness, and such a change was, in itself, immense; he could not have gone farther without weakening the dread of the punishment in store for wrongdoing, because it would have weakened the sanction of duty in the minds of his hearers. He promised the Kingdom of Heaven to the righteous; that kingdom was, consequently, closed to the wicked. Whither, then, did the wicked go? It was necessary to suggest an antithesis to the idea of “Heaven” of a nature capable of impressing a salutary terror on minds still too much under the influence of materiality to be able to assimilate the idea of spirit-life; for it should not be forgotten that Jesus addressed his teachings to the multitude, to the least enlightened portion of the society of his day, and that, in order to act upon the minds of those around him, it was necessary to present to them images that should be palpable and not subtle. He therefore abstained from going into details that could not have been appreciated in his day; he contented himself with holding up the opposite prospects of reward and of punishment; and this was all that he could usefully do at that period.
6. While Jesus threatened the wicked with “everlasting fire,” he also threatened them with being thrown into “Gehenna;” but what was “Gehenna?” A place in the outskirts of Jerusalem, into which all the filth and rubbish of the city was habitually thrown. If we take the statement of “everlasting fire” as being a literal truth, why should we not also take the statement about being thrown “into Gehenna” as equally literal? No one has ever supposed the latter statement to be anything else than one of the energetic figures employed by Jesus to strike the imagination of the populace; why should we give a different interpretation to the “fire” with which he threatens the guilty? If he had intended to represent their subjection to that “fire” as eternal, he would have been in contradiction with himself in exalting the goodness and the mercy of God; for mercy and inexorability are contraries that mutually annul each other. The whole teaching of Jesus is a proclamation of the goodness and mercy of the Creator; and it is therefore evident that it is only through an entire misinterpretation of his utterances that the latter can be held to sanction the dogma of eternal punishment.
In The Lord’s Prayer, he tells us to say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us;” but, if the trespasser against the Divine law had no forgiveness to hope for, it would be useless for him or her to ask for it. But is the forgiveness thus alluded to by Jesus as a certainty, unconditional? Is it an act of grace on the part of God, a pure and simple remission of the penalty incurred by the transgressor? No; for the obtaining of this forgiveness by us is made conditional on our having forgiven; in other words, if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. Since God makes our forgiveness of trespasses against ourselves the absolute condition of God’s forgiveness of our trespasses against God, God could not demand of weak humankind to do that which God, with God’s almighty power, refused to do; and the teaching of The Lord’s Prayer is therefore a standing protest against the doctrine which attributes eternal and implacable vengeance to God.
7. For men and women who had but a confused notion of the spiritual nature of the soul, there was nothing absurd in the idea of a region of physical fire, especially as there was a common belief in a Pagan Hell, universally divulged; nor was there, in the idea of punishment prolonged throughout eternity, anything calculated to shock the feelings of those who had been subjected, for centuries, to the penal code of stern and terrible Jehovah. As employed by Jesus, the threat of “everlasting fire” could only be metaphorical. What did it matter that this metaphor would be understood literally, for a time, if it was useful as a curb? He foresaw that time and progress would bring humankind on towards a comprehension of the true meaning of this allegory, and according to his prediction, “The Spirit of Truth” should come to enlighten humankind respecting “all things.”
The essential characteristic of irrevocable condemnation is its implication of the inefficacy of repentance; but Jesus never said that repentance could fail to find favor in the sight of God. On the contrary, he always represents God as clement, merciful, and ready to welcome back the returning prodigal to the spiritual home. He never shows God as inflexible excepting to the unrepentant sinner; but even while insisting on the certainty of the punishment that awaits the guilty, he holds out the prospect of forgiveness as soon as the wrongdoer shall have returned to the path of duty. Such, assuredly, is not the portrait of a pitiless God; and it should never be forgotten that Jesus never pronounced an irremissible sentence against anyone, not even against the most wicked.
8. All the primitive religions, in accordance with the character of the peoples among whom they took their rise, have made to themselves warrior-gods whom they supposed to fight for them at the head of their armies. The Jehovah of the Hebrews furnished the “chosen people,” on innumerable occasions, with the means of exterminating their enemies; Jehovah rewarded them by giving them victories and punished them by allowing them to undergo defeat. Conformably with their idea of God, the primitive nations imagined that such a God was to be honored and appeased by the blood of animals or of human beings; hence the sanguinary sacrifices that have played so prominent a part in so many of the religions of antiquity. The Jews had abolished human sacrifices; the Christians, notwithstanding the teachings of Christ, believed, for many centuries, that they honored the Creator by giving up thousands, of those whom they styled heretics to tortures and to the stake, thus continuing, under another form, the traditions of human sacrifices, for such were really the atrocities in question, since, according to the received formula, they were perpetrated “for the greater glory of God,” and with an accompaniment of solemn religious ceremony. Even at the present day, nations that call themselves “Christian” invoke “the God of Armies” before the battles and glorify this God after their victories; and they do this even when the purpose of their fighting is as unjust and as antichristian as possible.
9. How slow is humankind in getting rid of its prejudices, of its habits, of its early ideas! We are separated from Moses by forty centuries, and yet our Christian generation stills retains traces of the usages of his barbarian time, consecrated, or, at least, approved, by the religions of our day! To put an end to the use of the stake, and to give currency to a more just idea of the true greatness of God, has required all the force of the opinions of the non-orthodox, of those who are considered as heretics by the Church. But although the stake has been abolished, social and moral persecutions are still in full vigor, so deeply rooted in the human mind is the idea of a cruel God. Filled with the notions that have been instilled into them from their infancy, men and women naturally see nothing strange in the statement that God, who is represented to them as being honored by barbarous deeds, should condemn human beings to eternal tortures, and behold, without pity, the sufferings of the damned.
Yes, it is the philosophers, those who are qualified as “impious” by the Church, who have been scandalized at seeing the name of God profaned by being associated with deeds unworthy of God’s goodness; it is they who have presented to humanity a nobler idea of the greatness of the Divine Being, by stripping away from that idea the passions and pettiness attributed to God by the unenlightened beliefs of the primitive ages. The religious sentiment has thereby gained in dignity what it has lost in external show; for, while there are fewer devotees of ecclesiastical formalities, there are a greater number of men and women who are sincerely religious in heart and feeling.
But, besides the latter, how many are there who, going no deeper than the surface, have been led to negation of the idea of Providential action! Through its failure to harmonize its doctrines with the progress of the human mind, the Church has driven some to Deism, others, to absolute unbelief, others, again, to Pantheism; in other words, it has driven humankind to make gods of themselves, for lack of any higher ideal.