"And I beheld, and heard the voice of one eagle flying through the midst of heaven,
saying with a loud voice: Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth....
[Apocalypse (Revelation) 8:13]

Saturday, March 31, 2018

On the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ and the Eternity of Hell

On the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ
and the Eternity of Hell
"What is there that I ought to do more to my vineyard that I have not done to it."
--Isaiah v. 4.

Of all the truths proposed to our belief by our all-wise Creator and God, I know of none so overwhelming to our limited reason as the eternal torments of the world to come. Pagan morality durst not venture on the tremendous conception; it pointed to a future state of punishments, but never ventured to give them eternity. 

It was reserved for Christianity to proclaim the awful truth, and support her celestial injunctions by its more potent energy. She has long ago proclaimed it. The written word of God distinctly attests it, and the voice of his infallible Church loudly asserts it as one of the most prominent of her articles. Yet, there is no revealed truth which the sinners of the earth are more unwilling to believe. They cannot persuade themselves, after all, that their God will, at their departure out of life, exact from them an eternal vengeance. And, in fact, my brethren, certain as it is, it must be acknowledged to be a mystery that calls aloud for some unusual support. For, on the one hand, man is a weak and frail being, liable to fall every instant. His understanding is clouded by ignorance, his will stubborn and untractable. A thousand enemies, inveterate and indefatigable, surround him from without, and watch every unguarded moment to surprise him; within he has still more dangerous enemies, leagued with his eternal foes, and whose whole study is to betray him into their hands. In this condition, what wonder if he should fall?

On the other hand, his Creator is a God of infinite goodness; He has an infinite love for His creatures, far superior even to that essential love which they have for themselves. And yet, at their passage out of life, thousands and millions of them fall into that bottomless pit out of which there is no redemption. And He sees this, He wills it, He ordains it. Their sufferings there are vast, immense, every thing but infinite, and yet will never satisfy His vengeance. No! when they have accumulated for whole eternities, they will still find Him unpitying and inexorable.

Christians, how shall we comprehend this conduct of our infinitely good God? That such will be His conduct, we know from His own revelation; we know that it must be just, because He is justice itself: but how shall we reconcile it with that reason which He himself has given us? Is there any elucidation of the unintelligible mystery? Yes, my brethren, this day is its grand elucidation; this day clears up all. On this day, our God consents to be tried at the tribunal of our reason, and defies us to charge Him with injustice or severity. And for my part, after having contemplated the scene which this day exhibits, I confess that I am satisfied, fully satisfied: I have not a possible doubt remaining. Hell opens its abyss, and displays before me its avenging torments, and I acknowledge they are just; its wretched inhabitants send up their despairing cries and lamentations: I pity them, but I cannot excuse them. And such, my brethren, no doubt, will be your sentiments when you have accompanied me to the astonishing scene which we are now assembled to commemorate.

I need not conduct you through the preparatory stages which have led to it. That office has been already performed for me by the beloved disciple, an eye-witness of all he has described. It will be enough, therefore, for me to concentrate your attention upon the concluding scene.

The first question that naturally presents itself is: Who is the extraordinary personage so conspicuous in this day's tragedy?

And here, my brethren, indulge me in a wish for a moment, that at first, perhaps, may appear extravagant, but in the end will, I hope, redeem itself. I wish, my brethren, you had not known it; I wish, were it possible, you had been kept strangers to the scene that was passing. I would then myself have been your guide; I would have conducted you up the steep of Calvary, marked at every step with the traces of blood; and, making my way through the tumultuous crowd, would have stationed you at the foot of the cross. There I would have desired you to look upon the extraordinary sufferer, and contemplate his unexampled torments; and whilst you were compassionating Him, and concluding it was some common mortal expiating his crimes, Behold, I would have exclaimed, behold your God! Ah! my brethren, what would then have been your sentiments, what would have been your astonishment, and perhaps even your incredulity, till I called your attention to the sun darkened over your head, to the ground trembling under your feet, and universal nature attesting the death of her Lord. Yes, my brethren, great, in these circumstances, would have been your amazement; but now, because you were acquainted with the sublime truth, because you have been familiar with it from your childhood, you hear it without emotion; so that when, pointing to the image on Mount Calvary, where we are now in spirit standing, I assert, that it is your God, I say nothing that affects you; you have heard it till you no longer feel its meaning; and this day, the obiit (death) of God, this day, which eternity itself will never forget, passes to most of us as a day of only common occurrence.

Whence, brethren, this insensibility? Does it arise from want of faith? No! I cannot think it. It is true, that He who hangs before us presents the appearance of an ordinary mortal. He is like one of ourselves in form and feature. But this only enhances the wonder, and increases our obligations to Him. In His own divine nature, He could not suffer; He has, therefore, assumed our wretched humanity in order that it might be possible. Man, therefore, as He appears, He is truly God; and each one of you who hear me believes it as his own existence. It is not faith, therefore, my brethren, that we want, but reflection: we believe, but we believe without thinking.

Let us, then, in order to rouse, if possible, our slumbering sensibilities, pause for once, and reflect what it is we say, when we say that a God now hangs before us. Look around, my brethren, upon the heavens and the earth; how sublime an idea do they convey of their Almighty Architect! What a stupendous mass is the ponderous globe, upon which we stand; yet He poises it with one finger! How vast the abyss of its waters; yet he measures it, as the Scripture says, in the palm of His hand! How awful is the roar of the thunder; it is but the feeble echo of His voice! How terrific the glare of the lightning; it is only a faint scintillation of His brightness! All that we see around us, the vast luminaries that roll above us, the earth which we inhabit, with its endless diversity of animals and productions, with ourselves too, the lords and masters of the whole, once were not; we had no existence; we absolutely were not. He, the Almighty, spoke but one word, and instantly we leaped into being, and we are! How does the soul and all her faculties sink into insignificance before this idea of her Creator God.

Yet, turn now, my brethren, upon the cross, and recognise the same God hanging before you! Do you start at the expression? But, daring as it may appear, it is literally true. You know it; you knew it before, only you did not reflect upon it. How, indeed, it is to be comprehended, I do not pretend to tell you. The highest angels are here equally at a loss with ourselves; it is like all His other wonders, vast and incomprehensible; and all we have to do, is to bow down before it in mute adoration.

Let us not stop here, my brethren, but while the impression of this amazing truth is upon our minds, proceed and consider what it is, that this incarnate God here suffers. We, my brethren, can endure nothing; pain is our abhorrence; it is opposite to our very nature, and so irresistible in its effects, that, when it seizes upon us in its more violent forms, it completely overwhelms us. We become wrapped up in ourselves, and insensible to every thing, but our own misery. With what feelings, then, my brethren, were we not familiarised to the spectacle, with what feelings should we, this day, look up at the cross, where our Saviour--God hangs in the most excruciating torture, pierced hand and foot with gross nails, fastened to the ignominious tree, elevated above the heads of a shouting crowd, and supporting that cruel situation for three protracted hours!

My brethren, were we at this moment to behold this scene of torture exhibited in the person of the meanest slave, we could not look upon it unmoved. Were he even the worst of criminals, it would still be impossible: the humanity planted in our breasts would rise superior to all resistance, and overpower our abhorrence of his guilt; we should forget the criminal, and look only upon the man. How much more would the sight affect us, were it exemplified in the person of some one dear to us, some friend, some amiable individual, whom we could not at any time look on without emotion. What a tempest of passion would then agitate the soul, and almost force it from its earthly tenement! And can we stand by, and observe, without emotion, the person of our incarnate God treated in this outrageous manner? of Him, who is the most beautiful of the sons of men, whose countenance is the desire of the angels?

Surely, my brethren, this were already torment enough; but look now upon His divine face, and observe it streaming with blood. A platted wreath of thorns, fixed and pressed down upon His sacred head, in mockery of a crown! Which is the greater, the pain or the ignominy? He has styled himself their King, and we have seen in what a sublime sense He is so; and this is the crown which they have given Him! Is it possible for any human sensibility to be proof against such a scene of complicated cruelty and insult? Yet, turn your eyes now, my brethren, upon the crowd that surrounds Him, and see the compassion which He meets with. They stand scoffing at Him and deriding Him, shaking their heads at Him, as they pass, and crying: Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and in three days buildest it up again, save thy own self. They bid Him come down from his bed of torture, and they will then believe that He is their God. They wilfully mistake His pathetic exclamation, and insultingly ask whether Elias will come to His assistance. And yet, my brethren, this is truly their God, concealed under human form; and how painful must have been to Him these outrages of His own creatures, thus licensed to insult Him! Must He not almost have forgotten, for a moment, the corporal agonies He was enduring? But, is there then none, my brethren, in the numerous crowd, not one that pities Him, that consoles Him, and that ventures to raise a friendly voice amid the discordant outcries that salute His ears? No, my brethren, we cannot expect it, when even His domestics and favorites, His own apostles, have fled away and abandoned Him. One of them has betrayed Him, has sold Him; another, the prince of them, has denied that he ever knew Him. What a wound in that heart, which friendship must have touched with its finest sensibility! Certainly this suffering God must have been here employing His own omniscience in the selection of His sufferings.

But they are not even yet completed. If the earth has abandoned him, he can still look up to His native skies, the seat of His own eternal dominion. But no, the heavens themselves seem not now to recognise Him; its ministering spirits seem to have forgotten that He is their God. But a little while ago, they descended to offer him consolation; now, as if confounded at the magnitude of His evils, they all stand aloof, and look on in silence at the astonishing spectacle. And in this condition, suspended between heaven and earth, forgotten seemingly by the one, and loaded with the maledictions of the other, this divine sufferer bows down His sacred head and expires!

And now, fellow-Christians, the cause of this wonderful appearance? Yes, without the formality of regular transition, let us proceed, hasten on, and consider for whom it is that an incarnate God here offers Himself in expiation. For some partner in the heavens? for some co-equal in omnipotence? No, there is none, can be none; He alone is the great King of heaven and earth, the sole Omnipotent. Perhaps, then, some favorite of His court, some bright power of the heavens, has unhappily offended, and He, by an immense generosity, has descended to atone for him? Yes, Lucifer has fallen, Lucifer, the first of the celestials. And is it he, then, who has thus roused the commiseration of a God? No, he associates in his guilt the choicest beauties of the heavens; but they fall together into the avenging gulf, unpitied and unregarded.

Where, then, is the favored creature that is to justify this partiality of an independent God? There remains only man. Yes, my brethren, poor perishable man has caused this grand prodigy. Child of the dust, as he is, he has called down from his eternal throne the Omnipotent to redeem him. For he too had unhappily fallen. He had transgressed his Maker's law, and in an evil hour had undone the glorious work of his creation. Plunged in an instant into an abyss of miseries, he did not attempt to rise, and indeed had not left himself the power. He went on, adding sin to sin, insult to insult. He spread over the earth, and carried with him his rebellion and his impieties. The iniquities of the father were multiplied in his children; one age improved on the vices of another; till at last almost the only intercourse between heaven and earth was the voice of crimes crying aloud for vengeance. And what was there to counteract the just demand? His God stood not in need of this his worthless creature; poor earth-born man had no connexion with his eternal self-sufficient happiness; and in one moment he might have crushed him, without regret. Hell, on the other hand, raised up its baleful voice, and demanded, with seeming equity, that he who had followed in guilt should follow also in punishment. The essential attribute of a God, impartial justice, seemed to second the terrible demand. And in this fearful moment, my brethren, what was it that saved us? The unaccountable, incomprehensible love of a God for the most wretched of His creatures. His impetuous love was too powerful for His justice, and, relenting into compassion, He pardoned us. Pardoned us, did I say? Oh! look again upon the Cross, and see the manner in which He has pardoned us! Who would have thought it? Had he but pardoned us, this would have been astonishing. Had he commissioned another to atone for us, this would still have been infinite mercy.

But that He should think of this,--that He, the omnipotent, the eternal, the essential of beings, should think of atoning for us Himself, that He should leave His celestial throne, invest himself in our wretched clay, and atone for us Himself, and atone for us in the manner we have just beheld,--oh, this surpasses all comprehension; this leaves us at once speechless and prostrate. Here we cannot understand; we can only be silent and adore. But, my brethren, there is yet another circumstance wanting, to complete this stupendous wonder. For was it necessary, if He must indulge His immense love, was it necessary He should descend to all this? that He should become as a worm and no man, and endure the very extremity of torment and ignominy? Could not a God remit His own claims at a cheaper rate than this?

Faith teaches us, my brethren, and reason itself seems sufficient to evince that, coming from a God, the slightest atonement would have been enough; that, in a being of His infinite dignity, the very first drop of His inestimable blood would have sufficed, nay, would have blotted out the sins of a thousand worlds ten times more wicked than our own. Yet for us alone He prodigally shed it all; He would observe no medium in His love, nor rest satisfied till He had selected and combined in His own person every refinement of suffering, and exhausted the ingenuity of the most cruel of mankind.

Behold, then, the grand wonder complete! Behold the stupendous and unaccountable love of God to His guilty creature man, this day displayed to an unthinking world! And may I not add, taking up the pledge which I have thrown down, behold the eternal vengeance of God upon men in another world abundantly justified! For is it not so, my brethren? Can any one among us now venture to raise a single doubt in their favor? No; ye unhappy inmates of those dreadful prisons, cease your clamorous outcries. When we reflect that He who is now your tormentor was once your Redeemer, that before he passed on you the fatal sentence, He Himself, God as He is, had bled and died for you upon the cross, and offered you your rescue at this immense price, and you would not accept it, how can we excuse you? how can we, for a single moment, admit your complaints? No; in vain do you yourselves attempt to frame the rising blasphemy; in vain would you assert that you have not merited your torments; dreadful, overwhelming, eternal as they are, you this day shrink into your fiery dungeons, and feel that they are just.

And we, too, my brethren, must certainly now acknowledge that if ever it be our misfortune to fall into that place of wo, the fault will be entirely our own. We shall not certainly have our God to blame. For what more could he have done to extricate us from it? It was indeed our destined and inevitable abode; but He has with His own blood effaced the terrible handwriting; and if, after this, we are eternally miserable, it is our own free and deliberate choice. It is vain to allege that we have still a thousand enemies combining to drag us into the bottomless gulf; have we not now an omnipotent arm stretched out to save us? It would be cruel to complain that unruly passions still clamor in our bosoms: does any of them speak so loud as an expiring God? It would be injustice and insult to allege that we are surrounded by sin in every shape, and daily allured by its tempting baits: has it any persuasive like the image of a crucified Saviour? No, my brethren, if we can calmly look up at the cross, and still embrace and persist in an evil which was dearly expiated, we are hopeless, we are beyond redemption, we are out of the reach of motives, and must prepare without a resource for that hell which he, for whom it was first created, had not merited by such obdurate malignity.

But, my brethren, I am unwilling to leave you with this conclusion. This, though the immediate inference of my discourse, may surely, on this extraordinary day, yield its place in the mind of a generous being, to one less direct, but more engaging. What this is, it cannot be necessary to specify, when I recall your attention to the image of a God expiring out of His love for us. My brethren, we are created for love, we must necessarily love. All that we want is some grand object fully adequate to the strong propensity that agitates us. And where, my brethren, where shall we find it, but in the amiable God who this day exhibits so moving a spectacle? Infinitely charming in Himself, He this day seconds the powerful attraction by gratuitous love for us, thus combining in Himself every motive that can act upon our hearts. How then can we any longer resist? Turn, Christians, turn upon your God the force of that ever active principle within you, which will never suffer you to rest, which was implanted in you by Him, and which you are your own greatest enemies if you do not direct to Him.

Thus only will you escape that dreadful vengeance which, as we have seen, will be the just punishment of His slighted love. Or, if you are not as yet prepared to take the happy resolution, acknowledge at least the wisdom and the justice of it, and cease henceforward to wonder what powerful motive it is that engages and supports the votaries of retirement in a way of life so different from your own.

Yes, my brethren, you, my friends and associates in the ministry of a crucified God, to you, in the last place, I now address myself; you have a particular interest in this day's mystery. To the world at large, perhaps, when I speak of the love of God, I hold a language too sublime, one which it but little understands. Surrounded with vanities, buried in spiritual sloth, and accustomed only to the language and sentiments of a profane passion, it knows not of any other, and when we attempt to raise its grovelling affections to the sublime love of an allperfect God, and even support the exertion with all the force of this day's wonder, it is still insensible; it hears us with indifference, if not with impatience: and coolly gives back the neglected lesson to the contemplative inmates of the cloister and the sanctury. Let us, then, my brethren, gladly take it for ourselves. We have no ties upon the world, nor the world upon us; we have seen through and despised the emptiness of its boasted advantages, and have nothing left but to pursue with ardor that better part which we have chosen. To us, then, the impressive lesson of this day will be read with more effect.

Indeed, we have an additional motive to learn it well; for we are called, as I have just expressed it, to be the ministers and delegates of this crucified God upon earth; we are the depositories of that sacred fire which this day burned with such vehemence on Mount Calvary, and are to scatter and enkindle it through a frozen world. With what eagerness, then, ought we to cherish the sacred affection, and light it up betimes in our own bosoms. And how shall we so effectually do it, as in the contemplation of this day's mystery? Yes, my brethren, it was here that the apostles first grew inflamed; it was the recollection of this scene that carried them through all their labors, and made sufferings and death their glory and their gain. St. Paul, our great model, declared, that he knew nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified; though he had been rapt to the third heaven, and made acquainted with celestial secrets. And truly, my brethren, this is the grand compendium of all our studies. They all centre here, or are reducible to this, the knowledge and love of a crucified God. This sacred lesson, once learned well, would supply every deficiency; it would fill us at once with true wisdom, and inspire us with genuine eloquence. Whereas, without it, though possessed of all the sciences, we should be deplorably ignorant; though adepts in human eloquence, we should be no better than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals.

If, then, my brethren, in the multiplicity and distraction of our other pursuits, we have too often lost sight of this grand study, let this day at least terminate the omission, and be our day of introduction to a new school. Let us henceforward make this mystery one of the most prominent subjects of our daily contemplation. Let us frequently place ourselves at the foot of the cross; let us look up with feeling affection at that sublime and expressive image. The saints assure us that God regards with complacency even the sinner who looks devoutly upon the cross. The hardest rocks are excavated by time, the coldest bodies become warm by repeated application to the fire. Though now perhaps unfeeling, we shall in time yield to the powerful impression; on some destined day, the moving image of an amiable God, expiring out of love for us, with expanded arms inviting us into His embraces, will touch us with sensibility. A ray will beam from the cross upon our understandings; a spark will fall from it upon our frozen hearts. Surprised and delighted with the new sensation, we shall cherish it with ardor. Meditation will fan the flame; increasing graces will enlarge and expand it, and raise it at last into a conflagration, which even the corrupt and unfriendly air of a surrounding world will afterwards have no power to damp or extinguish.