Sin, and the Ethics of Hell and Heaven

Taken and adapted from, “Present Day Life and Religion”
Written by A.C. Dixon

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“These shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.”
–Matt, 25: 46.
“Now he is comforted, but thou art tormented.”
–Luke 16: 25.

“GONE FOREVER,” says Dr. Hillis, ” is Dante’s Inferno and Michael Angelo’s Last Judgment.”

And yet within less than a mile of the pulpit from which these words were spoken infernos fearful as Dante’s were in full blast, and judgments upon sin and sinners more terrible than Michael Angelo’s were being executed. S-I-N spells “hell” in this world and the next. It is no nightmare of mediaeval darkness. It is not the hallucination of a disordered brain. It is a fact which anyone with open eyes must see. The smoke of torment ascends here from the brothel, the dive, the saloon, the drunkard’s home, the divorce court, the prison, the electric chair, the gallows, the madhouse, the gambling den, and the lives of men and women who are burning in the furnace of their own lusts. It may not suit our aesthetic tastes, but our dislike of the situation does not affect the fact. “I hate the very thought of hell,” exclaimed a cultured lady. So do I. And I hate the very thought of murders, adulteries, thefts, jails and electric chairs, but my hatred does not destroy the facts. I hate snakes, but in spite of my hatred they continue to crawl and hiss and bite.

The Rightness of Hell

The first text implies not only the existence but the RIGHTNESS of hell. “These shall go away into everlasting punishment.” They are not driven. No high sheriff of the universe is needed to arrest them and by force cast them into hell. When the wicked, in the flash light of the Judgment Day, shall see themselves and their sins as they are, they will accept everlasting punishment as just retribution. Their sense of justice will approve it. It would appear to them an incongruous thing for God to take them to heaven, as incongruous indeed as it would appear to a guilty, impenitent criminal if the President of the United States, instead of sending him to the penitentiary, as he deserves, should take him into the White House as an associate for his wife and children.

Some People Prefer Hell

And, sad to say, the wicked, if they act then as many of them do now, will choose hell rather than heaven. I know men who prefer hell to heaven. A heaven on earth is open to them every day, but they turn from it into the hell of sinful indulgence. I could take you to a home in a great city which is an embryonic heaven, in which are love, and purity, and beauty, and music, and all the happiness which these things can bring. But a son born in that home cares not for it. One evening, as he starts out for a night of debauchery, his gray-haired mother stands in the door with outstretched arms, gently obstructing the way and begging him to remain with her. “My dear boy,” she says, “stay with us and do not go to that gambling den tonight.” Two sisters come out and add their loving entreaties. “Please stay with us, brother. We will read to you, play with you, do anything you wish, if you will only stay with us to-night.” But he pushes aside his mother, and jerking away from the loving clasp of a sister’s hand he goes into the hell of sin, where he remains of his own accord and burns in a furnace of lust for more than a week. When the police find him he is well-nigh consumed in body, mind and soul. The hell of sinful indulgence, with all its horrors of darkness, is more attractive to him than a heaven of purity, light and love. And the man with rebellion against God and love of sin in his heart would choose to go away into everlasting punishment rather than enter into heaven with its holiness and service.

And one can hardly blame him. Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people, and if unprepared for heaven it would be to him a hell. Now, is it right that there should be a hell for the wicked and a heaven for the righteous? Can the hell of the Bible be defended on ethical grounds? I believe it can be, and for the following reasons:

FIRST, IT IS RIGHT TO SEPARATE THE BAD FROM THE GOOD.

Three Words for Hell

 It is well known that three Greek words in the New Testament are translated three words “hell.” One of them is “Hades,” which for hell means simply the world of the dead, including both bad and good. Another word is the Greek “Tartarus,” which meant in ancient mythology the under-world of darkness. And by using this word the Holy Spirit would have us understand that, however mistaken were the pagans in many things, they were right in believing that the bad would at death go to an under-world of darkness. And this is merely the stamp of God’s approval upon the universal consciousness of mankind. All people, savage and civilized, believe that what they regard as wrong should be punished. They differ as to their standards, but they agree that the bad, as they know it, deserves punishment, and the good, as they know it, deserves reward.

The Garbage Idea

The third word translated “hell” is “Gehenna,” which was the name given to the valley of Hinnom, near Jerusalem, into which the garbage of the city was cast and there burned. At any time of day or night the fires, with their ascending smoke, could be seen in this valley. Jesus makes it the symbol of hell, “where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” Now, is it right for a city to have a valley of Hinnom into which the refuse shall be cast? or should the city leave its refuse to decay in its streets and in the cellars of its houses, filling the air with contagion and death? There are no two opinions on this subject among civilized people. Every garbage barrel, therefore, is an argument for hell. Those who refuse life in God become “refuse” in character sooner or later, and in the nature of things must be removed to a place apart.

A cemetery is a necessity. The bodies of the dead must not be left in the homes of the living. A little child died in the family of a former parish, and the poor mother, crazed with grief, would not consent to its burial. She stood like Rizpah over its little lifeless body, and would not allow undertaker or husband to touch it. After a week of such heart-rending experience, the husband was compelled to remove her by force to another room, while some friends went with the little form to the cemetery. To have kept the dead with the living would have been unkindness to the living and have done the dead no good. And thus every cemetery is an argument for hell. The spiritually dead soul is like a dead body, in that it is in a state of moral putrefaction and carries with it the deadly contagion of sin. If it refuses to receive life it must of necessity be placed apart with its spiritually dead companions.

SECOND, IT IS RIGHT TO PUNISH SIN.

This, as we have seen, is universally accepted. There is a natural and a positive punishment. Sin brings its own punishment, while a government has a right to punish sin when it develops into crime. A man kills another, and as a natural result suffers terrible remorse of conscience. But remorse of conscience does not satisfy the demands of the law, for there has been not only sin against his own soul, but crime against the commonwealth. Sin is its own Nemesis, and yet there is the wrath of God revealed against unrighteousness.

It is the wrath of the Lamb, more terrible, indeed, than the wrath of the lion –the wrath of gentleness against brutality, of kindness against cruelty, of chastity against unchastity, of truth against falsehood, of love against hatred, of holiness against sin, of light against darkness, of health against disease. Such is the wrath of the Lamb. It needs to be restated that there is something in God for sinners to fear. He is no moral weakling who, prompted by soft sentimentalism, permits criminals to destroy His righteous government. The preaching of this God of putty has been long enough filling hell, here and hereafter, with victims.

And yet God need not interfere otherwise than to protect the interests of His loyal subjects and obedient children. Sin left to itself makes hell. “Wickedness,” says Isaiah, “burns as a fire.” It is sin that heats

“The dungeon horrible on all sides round,
As one great furnace flame, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible.”

Take the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and you will see that the fires of torment have flames of Memory, Reason, Imagination and Conscience. “Son, remember.” Memory is immortal and will pass into the future freighted with its burden of neglected duties and privileges. The rich man uses the word “therefore,” which shows that Reason is immortal and lives to appreciate the facts of memory “This man in Hades requests Abraham to startle his five brethren by the return of Lazarus from the dead, and this shows that Imagination is also immortal to fan the flames of memory and reason. And every line of the parable bears witness to the fact that Conscience is immortal, with its sting of remorse.

Eliminate, if you please, all thought of literal fire, but there is no mitigation of suffering. I verily believe that there are persons in this world who suffer so intensely from an evil conscience, in the name of memory, reason and imagination, that to thrust their hand into a furnace of fire and burn it off would be a temporary relief. The fires which burn the soul are hotter than the fires which consume the body. Pollok’s description of hell in his “Course of Time” makes one shudder, and yet if you will divest his words of coarse literalism and give them the symbolic meaning he intended, you are compelled to acknowledge their truth. He says:

“Through all that dungeon of unfading fire
I saw most miserable beings walk,
Burning continually, yet unconsumed;
Forever wasting, yet enduring still;
Dying perpetually, yet never dead.
Some wandered lonely in the desert flames,
And some in fell encounter fiercely met,
With curses loud, and blasphemies that made
The cheek of Darkness pale.

I know that such a hell exists, for I have been there, I have seen men and women on this earth “burning continually, yet unconsumed; forever wasting, yet enduring still; dying perpetually, yet never dead.” It is, but another way of expressing what the Bible means by the “bottomless pit ” “forever falling without striking bottom, forever sinking in the moral scale, forever growing worse and yet not becoming so bad that you cannot grow worse still “everlasting degeneration! The soul, with infinite capacity for good or evil, chooses the evil and develops downward through eternity. Terrible thought! And yet the fact is in progress before our eyes. Men and women in this city are today away down the sides of the bottomless pit, and growing worse and worse every hour. Death will not retard, but in the worse environment of a place apart will accelerate the downward course.

A coarse wit asked an old preacher where he would get all the brimstone for the making of an orthodox hell, and his wise reply was u Every man will furnish his own brimstone.”

THIRD, IT IS RIGHT TO HAVE DEGREES OF PUNISHMENT.

This principle is admitted by every court of justice in every civilized land. “That servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.” Luke 12: 47, 48. ” Everlasting” does not mean “equal ” or “infinite.” Everlasting punishment will certainly follow everlasting sinning, the degree of punishment being in proportion to the sin. It is reasonable to conclude that if a man will not repent in this world, with an environment of good and evil, he will not repent in the next world, where there is environment of only evil. No father would try to reform a wayward boy by sending him to the vilest part of a city, where he would associate only with degenerates.

Sensible people do not try to wash themselves by wallowing in filth. God does for every person in this world all that infinite love, wisdom and power can do for a free moral agent. If a man chooses sin rather than righteousness, infinite love, wisdom and power cannot keep hell out of him or him out of hell. If he chooses death instead of life, he must submit to the process of moral putrefaction and abide by the law of necessity that the dead and the living must, in the final adjustment of affairs, be kept apart.

As to heaven, it is not difficult to convince men that there is a heaven, though I verily believe that there is more proof outside of the Bible that there is a hell than that there is a heaven. Sin is more in evidence than righteousness. Count the words in any large dictionary, and you will see that those defining the bad are more numerous than those defining the good. Read the daily papers, and most of the big headlines are proof that there is a hell on earth. And yet men are willing to delude themselves into the fancy that a little virtue deserves heaven. Why, then, deny the very existence of hell? They even demand of God that because He created them He should take them to heaven, though they carry with them a hell of iniquity.

Forgetting that heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people, they would compel God to do the impossible –of making them happy in a place for which they are not prepared. They refuse life, and then demand that they shall enjoy life. They refuse holiness, and demand that they shall receive the reward of holiness. They refuse reconciliation with God, and demand that they shall live in harmony with Him.  They refuse to let heaven come into them, and demand that God shall take them into heaven. Their demand really is that God shall make no difference between light and darkness, disease and health, death and life, anarchy and law, the cemetery and the home, the garbage heap and the garden. And yet they must acknowledge:

(1) That it is right to separate the good from the bad. Every home is built on that idea. It is a garden enclosed. It is a sacred place of purity and peace, separated from the vice and turmoil of the outside world. It is a holy of holies, with a veil between it and even the gaze of outsiders. It is a fountain of pure water protected from contamination by the laws of every civilized land. The English adage, “A man’s home is his castle,” which he has a right to defend against all intruders, is based on equity. To open the home to the inflow of evil is to destroy it. Jesus calls heaven “my Father’s house,” and He promises to take us to it by and by. Now, will our Father destroy this home by opening it to the evil of the universe? The home idea demands that heaven shall be a place apart from contaminating evil, and all the symbols of Scripture which describe it confirm this idea. “The Lamb is the light thereof,” and there is no evil in that light. The “streets of gold,” the “gates of pearl,” the “walls of jasper,” the “foundation of precious stones,” all suggest the exclusion of evil. “Without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters.” “There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defiles.”

(2) It is right to reward faithfulness. It is not right to reward gifts, but the improvement of gifts; not capacity, but the use and development of capacity. The parable of the talents teaches that there is no reward for having talents, but only for increasing them. The man with two talents received the same reward as the man with five, because the improvement as the same; and the man with one talent would have received as great reward as the man with two if he had made the same improvement. Why should God reward a man for capacity or opportunity which He gave without asking the man’s permission? But it is right that He should reward for improvement of capacity or opportunity. Everyone is responsible, not for what God has given, but for the use he makes of the gifts. Heaven, here and hereafter, is the result of faithfulness. Bigness does not count with God. Two-fifths of a cent given by a poor widow is more than all the abundance of the rich, because behind it was a faithful, self-sacrificing spirit.

Memory, Reason, Imagination, Conscience, these immortal faculties of the soul, cleansed by the blood and mastered by the life of Christ, will carry a heaven with them into the future, and this heaven will continue because faithfulness will continue. If one has been faithful in a world of evil and good, it is reasonable to infer that he will remain faithful in the “Father’s house,” where there is only good. Everlasting faithfulness means everlasting reward. And yet we should remember that our faithfulness from first to last depends upon the faithfulness of God. “I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” Underneath are the everlasting arms.” Salvation is altogether of grace, while reward is altogether of works. God gives us life through Christ, but we must gain the crown of life through faithfulness.

(3) It is right that there should be degrees of reward, though there are no degrees of salvation. Every man is saved completely or not saved at all. Life makes the difference between a corpse and a man, though in men there are degrees of life. We go to heaven on the merit of Jesus Christ, but the measure of happiness in heaven will depend upon the faithfulness here which will develop our capacity for joy. “Every cup will be full, but not of the same size.” Each one will be as happy as he can be, though some will be absolutely happier than others. In the description of heaven, which we have in the book of Revelation, the martyrs who were faithful unto death have the highest place. “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” These words describe the process which makes heaven in us while on earth. The affliction to which he refers was the result of faithfulness to Christ, and such affliction is never an enemy fighting against us, but always a servant working for us a weight of character. We are light-weights until the pressure of affliction for Christ’s sake has given us stamina and solidity, and this weight of glory is eternal. Character thus formed lasts forever. It has capacity for great enjoyment. Suffering for Christ digs in the soul deep channels of capacity through which the waters of joy forever flow. “Enter thou into the joy of thy lord” is the welcome of Jesus to everyone who has welcomed the Lord of Joy into his soul and thus received capacity for the enjoyment and the employment of heaven.

This biblical doctrine of heaven and hell has great ethical value. The fact that sin brings punishment is a deterrent to coarse and selfish natures. It is not the highest motive, but it is the only one that can influence the coarse and selfish. It is better for a man criminally inclined to be kept from crime by fear of prison or the electric chair than for him to go on in crime, heedless of consequences. Paul says, “Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” He knew that some men can be influenced only by such terror. Jesus uses the doctrine of hell as a motive to repentance.

If you have a sin as much a part of you and as dear to you as your eye or your hand, you had better give it up, for “it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye or one hand than having two eyes or two hands to be cast into hell fire.” I am aware that this motive is to a large extent absent from our pulpits, and this may account for the fact that so few pulpits are influencing the masses of the people. If there were more preaching of hell in the pulpit there would be less of hell in the community. We are not saved by fear of punishment. It is the magnetic power of the uplifted Christ which draws all men, but the terrible results of sin have shocked many a soul into reflection which led to Christ. A sight of future fires makes men seek to quench the present fires of sin that may be consuming them in soul and body. To suppress these severe truths in deference to the soft sentimentalism of liberal minds who reject the Bible and the facts of sin about them is not only unfaithfulness to God but unkindness to the multitude, who need the restraining influence of fear.

It is not difficult to prove that the hope of heaven makes men better. If there is reward for faithfulness, one can afford to practice self-denial, and even suffer persecution, rather than prove unfaithful. Paul said, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” If these sufferings, borne patient make character that will shine to the glory of God through eternity, I can afford to bear them, that the glory may be greater. The patriotic soldier endures the march, the bivouac, the hunger, the cold, the wound and the sickness, cheered by the hope that all this will end in victory. Even the perfect Christ “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” Only ignoble minds have contempt for the rewards of righteous endurance. One should do right because it is right, and refuse to do wrong because it is wrong; but even so noble a motive as that will be inspired to enthusiasm in doing right by the consciousness that right-doing is rewarded by the approval of God and lives beyond the act in the character it makes. There is a heaven in the hope of heaven.

Sin needs no helper in making a hell; for “sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”

The gravitation will be downward until we find our own place. Jesus Christ is the Savior from sin to righteousness, and when we accept Him there comes into us a life that gravitates upward until we reach His plane of character. With the hell of the Bible before us, the death of Christ on the cross has new meaning, for it shows from what we are saved; and with the heaven of the Bible before us it has new meaning still, for it shows to what we are saved. The meaning of Calvary is measured by the distance between the bottomless pit and the topless height.

“Choose I must, and soon must choose
Holiness or heaven lose;
While what heaven loves I hate,
Shut for me is heaven’s gate.

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