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That surely is the reasonable method to pursue ; and if you care to pursue it, I will try in my succeeding Lectures to shew you how to use it and to what conclusion it leads.
In the two previous and preliminary Lectures we have arrived at the following conclusions :
(1.) That we must look for what the Bible has to teach on the life to come only to the Gospels and the Epistles, since the Old Testament Scriptures were written before life and immortality had been brought to light, while the Apocalypse is written in a cipher of which we do not possess the key.
(2.) That, even with the Gospels and Epistles in our hands, we must not hope to frame a full, exact, and coherent theory of that life, since it is by no means likely that the sacred and august realities of the spiritual and eternal world can be revealed to us with any fulness and precision so long as we are the children of sense and time.
(3.) But that we may hope—a) by a patient study of the passages commonly adduced in favour of the endless punishment of the impenitent, to shew that they do not sustain the interpretation put upon them; and (B) to find in these Scriptures, nay, in the whole Bible, certain large and controlling principles which point in an entirely opposite direction.
So that what we have yet to do is to examine the texts which seem to imply that, when the wicked die out of this world, there is no longer any prospect of their being recovered unto life, since they are instantly damned to an interminable and unremedial torment; and then to look for those great ruling principles which render any such conclusion impossible.
I need hardly say, I suppose; that of those two branches of inquiry the second is by far the more attractive and conclusive. To build up a doctrine on isolated texts is always hazardous and unsatisfactory. Before we can rely on our doctrine we must assure ourselves that it is in harmony with the ruling thoughts which pervade the Scripture from end to end, that it accords with the mind of the Spirit rather than with the letter of the Word. But, on the other hand, it would be of little use to discuss these large ruling thoughts or principles, and to draw logical conclusions from them, if, all the while we were thus occupied, we were fretted and harassed by the recollection of a considerable number of passages which would perk up their heads and open their lips to question, if not to contradict, the conclusions to which we were travelling. We must; therefore, clear these passages out of our way, must determine what they really teach, if we are to frame our conclusion with an undisturbed mind, and to rest in it. To this task, then, a careful and honest examination of the Scriptures which favour, or appear to favour, the accepted view, let us at once address ourselves.
Now, if we ask on what, and what kind of passages in the Gospels and Epistles the popular view is based, I think we shall find that they are of two classes. (1) We have all those passages in which the words “ hell” and “ damnation” occur; then (2) we have a still larger class, in which the words “eternal” and “everlasting” occur; and in this class, a subordinate series in which precisely the same epithets are applied to the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked, from which therefore the inference is drawn that the one will endure as long as the other. Under these two heads we may gather up, I think, all that is of real value and importance in the New Testament, in so far, at least, as it bears on the question we have in hand. To examine these passages at all carefully, or even to examine the leading examples of each class, is a work that will necessarily consume some time; but I hope three or four Lectures will suffice to take us through them; and then we shall be free to turn to the study of those spacious and controlling principles by which, after all, the question must be finally determined.
The first class of Scriptures we have to examine are those in which the words “hell” and “damnation" occur, for it is on these passages mainly that the popular misconception is based. If these two words were expunged from the Bible, I doubt whether most of those who read it would not feel that the whole dogma of future and endless torment had vanished with them. No doubt, therefore, many of you will be surprised perhaps even astonished and indignant—to hear, that neither of these words is to be found in any part of the New Testament, or, indeed, in any part of the whole Bible ; nor even any word which at all answers to the conception which they quicken in our minds. “ Not to be found in the New Testament !” you say; "why I can shew you a dozen, or a score of places in which these words are to be found.” But are you quite sure that it is the New Testament in which you find them? It is a version, a translation of the New Testament, of course ; but does it necessarily follow that the translation is an accurate one! I am sorry to say, that in so far as it uses the words “hell” and “damnation,” it is demonstrably an inaccurate and misleading one. No such words are to be found in the Greek, that is, in the real, the original Testament, nor any words which convey, as they now do, the conception of a final and ever-during place of torment, and of a Divine sentence which adjudges men to that place of torment.