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and the duration of future punishments, are of infinite moment.
The general, and indeterminate expressions of scripture, have given rise to three hypotheses, very distinct from each other. These we shall proceed to consider; as an opportunity will thus present itself of examining those passages of scripture, upon which each hypothesis is professedly founded. Nor shall we neglect to apply the maxim we have advanced at the commencement of this disquisition ; “when different parts of Scripture seem to oppose or contradict each other, those explanations which are most consonant to reason and most worthy of the Deity, ought to be adopted.”
Some, indeed a great majority of Christians, have, for many ages, strenuously supported the doctrine of the absolute, irremediable, eternal misery of myriads and myriads of souls, that die in an impenitent state, enemies to God by wicked works. Nor have these christians manifested a modest diffidence, concerning this intricate subject, so becoming the obscurities which surround it, but they have peremptorily enforced their interpretations of scripture language, as infallible truths, which it is dangerous to disbelieve or to
oppose. Let us examine whether they have not been too precipitate.
The tremendous hypothesis is founded upon some of the expressions already cited. Our Saviour, even the benignant Jesus, says, that in the final punishment of the Wicked, not only “ there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but that the worm shall not die, nor the fire be quenched ;” and that the righteous judge shall say, depart ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
This is very strong and very alarming language. It must have a signification of infinite moment; but this signification must be consonant with those sentiments, which it is our duty and happiness to entertain, concerning the essential benignity of the universal parent, and also with the general tenour of scripture phraseology
We may observe that the expressions of so terrific a nature, are comparatively few. They are occasionally and incidentally used. They manifestly belong to the class mentioned in our third rule, respecting the interpretation of scrip_ture language. Some of them are obviously metaphorical, and cannot be the basis of first principles. Their object is to enforce or to illustrate, truths already known or admitted.
In the interpretation given of them, which expresses a conscious existence in eternal misery, they contradict the current language of seripture, which uniformly denounces, death, destruction, perdition, as the portion of the wicked; and it has been shewn above, that the meaning of these terms is fully explained to us, by the sentence pronounced and executed, upon Adam and all his posterity. The execution of this sentence may be attended with that horror so emphatically expressed by weeping and gnashing of teeth; and the escape may be as impracticable as it would be to destroy a never-dying worm, or to extinguish an inextinguishable fire.
But the strong expressions now quoted, are, in their very contexture, metaphorical, and, according to every system, demand an explanatory, solution; for they cannot possibly contain any literal facts. Weeping and gnashing of teeth, cannot be reconciled to the ideas, universally formed, of a spiritual body. Nor can we possibly suppose that an eternally material worm, shall be eternally gnawing upon an immaterial being, or a spiritual body; or that the same subject, shall also be exposed to the operations of a material and eternal fire, without being transmuted or consumed by that pervading and destructive element. . That these are congruities, must be universally allowed; and they can only be escaped, by our having recourse to some explanations which shall be more pertinent. As neither the worm nor the fire can be eternal, in a literal sense, to apply the words to the subject operated upon, is, in reality, an arbitrary assumption, a mere conjecture; and a question remains, whether the term of his existence may not be as indefinite, as that of the gnawing worm, or consuming fire, must be?
As this severe interpretation is conjectural, and may be false, we are at liberty to adopt another, which we cheerfully acknowledge ought not to be received, until it be brought to the test of reason and scripture. The following may possibly be the import of these expressions.
The wretched offender may be condemned to suffer intense agony of mind, and a perpetuity of the most painful sensations, either during the whole of his existence, or during the period that his extreme demerits shall continue, that is, until his character shall be changed. As long as the subject shall remain in his state of depravity, there will, according to the force of the metaphor, be food for a gnawing worm, and the scorching flame. The worm shall not suddenly die, nor shall the fire be suddenly quenched. The dreadful process shall uninterruptedly con
tinue, until the purpose of destruction, or of transmutation, shall be accomplished.
We shall adduce some observations in support of the above solution, and we invite the advocates for the hypothesis we oppose, to search the scriptures with similar diligence, that an impartial comparison may be made.
The prophet Isaiah, in describing the dreadful judgments which awaited the rebellious Israelites, says, “ The sinners in Zion are afraid, fearfulness has 'surprised the hypocrite; who among you shall dwell with devouring flames? Who among you shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” No man can rationally suppose, that the prophet refers to the eternal torments of hell, for he is not speaking of that subject; and it is plain, from what has been already urged, that the Jews would not have understood him.
The same prophet utters also the following remarkable expression, “they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me, for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.*
The expressions of our Saviour, which are the basis of the system under examination, are manifestly a quotation from this sublime pró
* Isaiah lxi. 24.