22. The belief in the physical nature and eternal duration of the future punishment of the wicked has maintained its hold on the human mind, as a salutary restraint, during the ages in which men and women were still too backward to comprehend the force of moral considerations. It has been with the world, in regard to this belief, as with children, who are held in check, for a few years, by the chimerical terrors which are brought to bear on them; but there comes a time when the minds of children has outgrown the empty tales that formerly frightened them, and when it would be simply absurd on the part of those about them to attempt any longer to influence them by any such means, and when, if their parents or guardians pretended that those tales were true and were to be accepted and respected as such, they would necessarily forfeit the confidence of their children.
It is thus with the convictions of humankind at the present day. The human race is passing out of its childhood and shaking itself free of the leading strings of the past. People are no longer either mere tools, yielding passively to the pressure of physical force, or credulous children, believing implicitly whatever is told them.
23. Belief, at the present day, must be based on reason; consequently, no doctrine that is contrary to reason can continue to maintain its hold on the human mind. The doctrine of eternal punishment may have been not only harmless, but also even useful, at a given period of human development; but it has become positively dangerous, now that the period of its usefulness has passed. When the human mind has acquired the power and habit of reasoning, the attempt to impose upon it, as the absolute truth, something that is contrary to reason, must necessarily lead to one of two alternatives; either those whose minds are thus brought face to face with an absurdity wish to believe, and seek out for themselves a more rational conception – in which case they break loose from their official teachers – or they throw the very idea of belief overboard, and become skeptics or atheists. For all who have calmly studied this aspect of the question, it is evident that, at the present day, the dogma of eternal punishment has made more materialists and atheists than the arguments of all the so- called philosophers put together.
The course of human thought is always onward. Humanity can only be led by considerations in harmony with this progressive movement of human ideas; the attempt to arrest this movement or turn it back, or merely to fall into its rear, while the current continues to flow on, must necessarily be fatal to the influence of those who make the attempt. To follow, or not to follow, this onward movement of the human mind is a question of life or death, for creeds as for governments. Is this to be regretted or to be rejoiced in? Assuredly, it must appear regrettable to those who, living upon the past, see the past slipping from under them; but, for those whose eyes are turned towards the future, it is the law of progress, the law of God, against which all resistance is in vain, for those who fight against the Divine Will won’t succeed.
But why should any person be determined to uphold, by main force, a belief that is not only dying out from the convictions of humankind, but which, in point of fact, is far more injurious than useful to the cause of religion? Alas! It is sad to have to make such a confession, but the fact is that, in the desperate efforts now being made to keep up the doctrine we are considering, the question of religion is subordinated to the question of pecuniary gain. The belief in eternal punishment has been made a source of large revenue to those who have inculcated it, because there has been craftily interwoven with it the idea that men, through the giving of money, can procure for themselves admission into Heaven, and thus preserve themselves from Hell. The sums that this doctrine has brought, and still brings, defy all calculation; it is a tax levied on the fear of eternity. This tax being a voluntary one, its amount proportioned to the degree of belief accorded to the doctrine on which it is based; if that belief should cease to exist, the tax to which it gives rise would also cease to exist. The little child, who believes in the existence of the werewolf, willingly gives his cake to the bigger boy who promises to drive the dreaded visitant away; but when the child has ceased to believe in werewolves, he keeps the cake for himself.
24. As the new revelation, inculcating more rational ideas in regard to the future life, has made clear that each soul must work out its own salvation through its own efforts, it has naturally excited an opposition that is all the more bitter in proportion to the importance of the source of pecuniary gain which it destroys. The same angry opposition is always excited by every new discovery or invention that threatens to change the habits of humankind. All those who have been accustomed to gain their living by the old costly ways of the past, cry out in the same voice, and decry the innovations. Is it supposable, for instance, that the art of printing, notwithstanding the immense services it was evidently destined to render to the human race, could have been welcomed, at its commencement, by the enthusiastic acclamations of the numerous body of copyists? Assuredly not; on the contrary, they would naturally receive the new invention with curses. All kinds of laborsaving machinery, railways, and the thousands of other inventions have met with similar opposition.
By the skeptic, the doctrine of eternal punishment is regarded as an absurdity that would be impossible to discuss without a smile; while, in the eyes of the philosophers, it constitutes, through the falsities it implies and the abuses to which it leads, a serious danger for society: the sincerely religious man desires, for the honor of religion and the well-being of society, to see those abuses disappear through the sweeping away of the unfounded and irrational assumption that is their cause.