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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15


The Final State of Unbelievers

Alvah Hovey D.D., President Of Newton Theological Institution, Mass.

From the book, Biblical Eschatology, 1888

The teaching of the Holy Scriptures in regard to this state comprises the following particulars:


1. That it begins directly after the last judgment. Retribution naturally follows judgment, and there are many expressions in the Word of God that seem to connect the final state of the wicked with that act. (e. g., Matt. 25:41, 46; Rom. 2:5-16; Rev. 20:10-15)


2. That it continues the same in kind forever. The language of Christ and the apostles is apparently unambiguous on this point (See Matt. 25:46; Mark 9:47-48; Rev. 20:10, 15; 22:11, 15). The explanation of the Greek word or words translated "eternal," "forever," etc., as denoting quality, rather than duration, must be pronounced untenable. Its origin may probably be traced to the opposition which men feel to the doctrine of endless misery.


This doctrine is said to be abhorrent to reason and inconsistent with the perfection of God. Nevertheless, an impartial study of what the Lord Jesus and his apostles taught leads to this startling and offensive doctrine. The Greek word here used, if turned into a corresponding form in our language, would be represented by ceonian.


The space allowed for these notes gives no opportunity for the discussion of this word; but the writer of the note would say that in his view the adjective had in it the quantitative, rather than the qualitative, element, as it was used by the New Testament writers in general, and that even what may be called its qualitative use in John's gospel was, if we may so express it, founded upon the quantitative idea. The word seems to have been a word involving the idea of duration; and, in the adjective form, it seems to have come into use as the thought of duration began to reach out more fully beyond this earthly life." (Sunday School Times, for May 6, 1888)


In looking at this doctrine three things should always be borne in mind:


(a) That no one of us can fairly claim to know the demerit of sin, or the penalty which absolute holiness would inflict on the sinner. Imperfect knowledge and conscious selfishness dis­qualify every man for the office of judge in this matter.


(b) That God perfectly knows the nature of man, the demerit of sin, and the misery which should be its retribution. Moreover, the perfection of his character is more certain to our reason than the injustice of eternal punishment.


(c) That eternal sin is presupposed by eternal misery. It is the impenitent, the unbelieving, the enemies of God and righteousness, who are cast out into the outside darkness, and there is no evidence that they will ever come to a better mind. In a moral universe, rightly constituted, incorrigible, wickedness draws after it perpetual loss and pain. The worm that dieth not is kept alive by sin, and sin is the movement of a free being in his chosen way. If he is a slave, he is in bondage to self, and not to another.


(3) That it is worse for some than for others. (Matt. 11:21-24; Luke 12:47, 48; Heb. 10:29)—There are degrees of punishment in the final state. Some unbelievers are more guilty than others, since they have rejected clearer light, and have become more hardened and bitter in their enmity to God. Justice will therefore impose a severer penalty on them. But no one will suffer a breath of anguish more than he ought to suffer. Whether the misery of the lost will increase from aeon to aeon, or will soon reach its maximum and then remain practically stationary, we are unable to say. In favor of the former hypothesis, appeal may be made to the law of progress in the present life. Bad men and good are both endowed with faculties and impulses tending to growth. Why should it not be so hereafter? Why should not the love of knowledge continue active, and the mind itself be enlarged without limit?


General observation favors this view. But in favor of the latter hypothesis, it may be urged, that a sense of guilt tends to rob men of hope, to make them love darkness rather than light, to concentrate thought and desire upon self; and that all this belittles the soul and limits the range of its activity. In a word, growth must be retarded, if not wholly arrested, by sin and despair. This result is also suggested by some of the imagery employed by the sacred writers in describing the state of the lost- e. g., by the outside darkness. But we are moving in the realm of speculation, and cannot be sure that it is towards the truth. Certainly, no one can hold that this process of self-reproach, isolation, and hopeless inaction, will at last end in unconsciousness, without misinterpreting the word of God. Nirvana is not the final state of unbelievers. Eternal rest is not eternal punishment. The words of Dr. McLaren deserve to be read:


"The fate of the indolent servant has a double horror. It is loss and suffering…Gifts unemployed are stripped off a soul yonder. How much will go from many a richly endowed spirit, which here flashed with unconsecrated genius and force!...How far that process of divesting may go on faculties, without touching the life, who can tell?...But loss is not all the indolent servant's doom. Once more, like the slow tone of a funeral bell, we hear the dread sentence to the murky midnight without, where are tears undried and passion unavailing. The most loving lips that ever spoke have, in love, shaped this form of words, so heart touching in their wailing but decisive proclamation of blackness, homelessness, and sorrow, and cannot but toll them over and over again into our ears, in sad knowledge of our forgetfulness and unbelief."


(4) That it involves no useless or arbitrary suffering.— Of this we are confident, not because we know the precise character of the evil which will overtake the ungodly hereafter, but because the Lord of all the earth will do right. The evil which is to come upon the ungodly in their final state is portrayed by the sacred writers in figurative speech, suggesting for the most part physical suffering, like that which men experience in this life. "The worm that never dies," "the outside darkness," "the lake of fire," the companionship of bad men and demons, are all, except the last, figurative expressions, intended to fix in the mind an apprehension of great suffering. But we have no reason to interpret them as revealing the nature of that suffering.


The reaction of reason and conscience against self-will may have a large place in the penalty of sin. Self-condemnation, self-reproach, and self-contempt are sure to be ministers of God's displeasure with those who will not obey the truth.


Despair of future good must also mingle with the memory of slighted opportunity, and fill the soul with gloom. Remorse is certain to do its work with dreadful constancy. Thus God's servants are placed in the constitution of man's spirit, and that spirit will therefore scourge itself for persisting in sin. Everything may come to pass through the energies of life itself. Of course, the environment may be concerned in moral retribution.


The resurrection body of the wicked may enhance their misery. But it is not easy to conceive of any place where a lost soul would be at rest. Heaven would have no attractions for it. Darkness would be preferred to light, and separation from God, to fellowship with him. Yet out of God's presence it is impossible to flee. If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.  If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;  Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me…Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”  (Ps. 139:8-ff)


As a final thought in Eschatology, reference may be made to the vast preponderance of good over evil as the fruit of redemption and judgment. Not only will order be restored throughout the universe, but the good will by far outnumber the bad; the saved will be many times more than the lost. Not that Jesus, or any one of his disciples, has asserted this in so many words.


The proportion of the lost to the saved is nowhere revealed in definite language. It looks, indeed, as if the Redeemer considered it unwise to satisfy human curiosity on this point. If we study his words closely they will be found to stop far short of fixing any definite ratio between the two classes.


In his Sermon on the Mount it is said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matt. 7:13, 14) But this saying seems to have been intended to describe the conduct of men then living, rather than to foreshadow the two opposite currents of human life to the end of time.


Again, Jesus is reported by Luke as saying, in answer to the question, "Lord, are there few that be saved?", “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able." (Luke 13:24) But there is nothing in this to indicate the proportion of those who enter in to those who fail of entering. Indeed, the precise question is not answered, but is made the occasion for a serious exhortation and warning.


In the parable of the ten virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom, five are described as wise and five as foolish; but the parable appears to lay no stress upon the equal number of the two classes, and it would, doubtless, be fanciful to insist upon it as significant.


In the parable of the wheat and tares, we may reasonably presume that the wheat should be regarded as much more abundant than the tares, for this would generally be the case in Jewish farming; but there is no explicit reference to it in the words of Jesus, and we cannot rely upon it as a just inference. It is only a conjecture, after all.


In the twin parables of the talents and the pounds, the proportion of the faithful to the unfaithful is as two to one; yet in neither parable is any use made of this circumstance. Besides, it is by no means certain that "the servants" signify all mankind, from the beginning of human history to its end.


And, lastly, in the parable of the wedding feast, only one of the guests is represented as not having a wedding garment, though the house was filled. But nothing is said to show that the ratio of the many to the one will be realized at the judgment day. As far as explicit teaching on this point there is none from the lips of Jesus.


Nor is there anything like a numerical comparison between the saved and the lost in the apostolic writings. But there are a few general expressions which foretell a magnificent outcome from Christ's mediatorial work. It is impossible to read them without prejudice, and still believe that more than a small proportion of men and angels will be cast out into the outer darkness.


Yet, as we have before seen, they are not to be interpreted as predicting the ultimate recovery of all moral beings from sin to holiness. In one of them, God is said to have purposed "That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:" (Eph. 1:10); in another, it is said that he “…hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all." (Eph. 1:22, 23); in another, that "…it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven." (Col. 1:19, 20); and in another that “…he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death…And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:25, 26, 28).


"Then," says Dr. Kendrick,


"shall be no more curse. Sickness and death, physical, mental, social, moral evil, all banished utterly and forever from that kingdom which—stretching over our entire earth, and including we know not how many sister spheres—shall have succeeded to the imperfect and perishable monarchies of time! Then shall be nothing to vex or destroy in all God's holy mountain; no more sorrow, no more suffering, no more error, no more death, because no more sin! Somewhere within the creation of God, we are bound to believe, will be the prison-house of apostate angels, and of impenitent and unredeemed men, where sin that now riots in exulting license, shall writhe in darkness and bondage. But within the wide boundaries of the visible, organized, and ever-increasingly glorious kingdom of Christ, shall be no defilement and no sorrow."


Were the world of the lost to be at all comparable in numbers or strength to the world of the saved, it would be difficult to understand how Paul could have written the passages quoted, and especially difficult to see bow he could have predicted that God should be "all in all."


Moreover, though the sacred writers say nothing in respect to the future condition of those who die in infancy, one can scarcely err in deriving from this silence a favorable conclusion. That no prophet or apostle, that no devout father or mother, should have expressed any solicitude as to those who die before they are able to discern good from evil, is exceedingly surprising, unless such solicitude was prevented by the Spirit of God. There are no instances of prayer for children taken away in infancy.


The Saviour nowhere teaches that they are in danger of being lost. We therefore heartily and confidently believe that they are redeemed by the blood of Christ and sanc­tified by his Spirit, so that when they enter the unseen world they will be found with the saints. Thus almost half of the human race is rescued from the ruin of the fall by the Saviour's grace. And to these must naturally be added all others who have been incapable of moral action in this life. As to religion, the idiot has no knowledge and no accountability more than the infant.


Nor is this all. There are several prophecies of the Old Testament, which depict the Messiah's reign among men as peaceful, universal, and enduring (e.g., Ps. 72; Isa. 9:6, 7; 11:1-9). And there is at least one prophecy of the New Testament which may fairly be classed with those referred to in the Old—namely, the paragraph in the twentieth chapter of Revelation concerning the Millennium. For that blessed period, whether it is to be preceded or to be followed by the second coming of Christ, is undoubtedly described as a very long period; and during the whole of it the controlling influence will be positively where a singular interpretation, having no solid foundation, is given.


The saints will inherit the earth. The powers of evil will be restrained. Rulers and people will unite in doing the will of God. Kings will be nursing fathers, and queens nursing mothers unto the true Israel. And when the duration and the character of this magnificent period are borne in mind, it will seem no exaggeration to say that the faithful on earth will become like the sands upon the seashore—innumerable. Long before this, John saw, in holy vision, "After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb." (Rev. 7:9, 10)


"We have reason to believe," remarks Dr. Chas. Hodge, "that the number of the finally lost in comparison with the whole number of the saved will be very inconsiderable. Our blessed Lord, when surrounded by the innumerable company of the redeemed, will be hailed as the ‘Salvator Hominum,' the Saviour of Men, as the Lamb that bore the sins of the world" (Syst. Theology, III, p. 880).


"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Then, and not before, will our theodicy be made perfect. Meantime, guided by the starlight of prophecy, we may journey onward in hope through the dim present into the luminous future—"While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." (2 Cor. 4:18) Under the holy influence of what we can thus discover, let us give earnest heed to the admonition: "To-day, if ye shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts." (Heb. 4:7)