~ Final Issues of Evil ~

“The Final Issues of Evil” *
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“I have a yet graver subject to deal with: the final issues of evil, as they are depicted in these parables.*
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Let us first collect the imagery, which is remarkably varied and suggestive. The Tares are gathered and burnt. The Bad, inedible Fish are thrown away. The Guest who has not provided himself with a wedding-garment is cast out into the darkness outside the brightly lighted hall; and so are the Virgins who have not provided themselves with oil for their lamps. The man who has not done business with his Pound, or his Talent, has it taken from him; and he also is cast out. Those on the left hand of the Judge who have not used their opportunities of well-doing, go away into eternal punishment. The forgiven Servant who is unforgiving has his pardon cancelled, and is thrown into prison and delivered to the tormentors till such a time as he has paid his debt in full. All these punishments are connected in the parables with the end of the age, represented under different figures. The Tares are not gathered and burnt till the harvest has come, nor is the Wedding-guest expelled till the house is filled, or the Servant who has buried his talent deprived of it till his master returns. And the ‘end’, thus variously depicted, is no doubt the end of the present age, ‘τῇ συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος’ (Mat 13:40), as St. Matthew calls it, using the Greek equivalent of an Aramaic phrase probably used by Christ; the punishment inflicted reaches on into the new order which will then begin, and nothing is said as to any ending of it, unless indeed there should also be an end, as in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant it is dimly hinted, of the sin which is the cause of the punishment.
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On the other hand it seems clear that some of the punishments are very much lighter than others. The extreme examples are those of the Tares and the Goats; for the tares are burned, which means (we are told in the interpretation Mt. 25:41) that those ‘who make others to stumble’ or who ‘do iniquity’ shall be cast ‘into the furnace of fire, ‘εἰς τὴν κάμινον τοῦ πυρός’: and those on the left hand are bidden to ‘go into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels’ (Mt. 25:41). Others suffer only exclusion from the light and joy of the heavenly state, or the loss of privileges which they have failed to use. All this seems to indicate a graduated scale of future punishments corresponding to the nature of the offense, and it agrees with what is said elsewhere about one servant being beaten with few and another with many stripes (Lk.12:47). And this is a consideration which removes to a great extent the sense of unfairness which many revolt from the doctrine of future punishments as it is sometimes preached, a doctrine which condemns to one and the same ‘hell’ some of the most upright and some of the most wicked of the human race.
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It is of great importance to have a clear understanding as to the use of the English word ‘hell’ and the various Hebrew and Greek words which it represents in the Bible. ‘Hell’ in Old English is no more than the unseen world of departed spirits, the ‘Sheol’ of the Hebrews, the “Hades” of the Greeks. That is of course its sense in the Apostles’ Creed, where our Lord is said to have descended into Hell, and it is also its sense even in St. Luke 16:23, where our Authorised Version gives ‘In hell he (Dives) lift up his eyes: meaning not ‘in the place of torment,’ but simply ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ, ‘in the state of departed spirits.’ But from Wiclif onwards the word has also been employed by our English translators in the New Testament to translate ‘Gehenna’, γεεννα, which is used several times by our Lord, with or without the addition ‘of fire,’ τοῦ πυρός. And though this word or this phrase does not occur in the parables, there can be no doubt that it was in His mind when He spoke of the tares being cast into ‘the furnace of fire’, and the goats going away into ‘the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and His angels’. The notion of the evil being cast into fire connects itself with the Jewish doctrine of a future Ge-Hinnom. As the Valley of Hinnom, below the southern walls of Jerusalem, had in the days of Manasseh blazed with sacrificial fires in which children were offered to Moloch, and as in after days according to Jewish tradition it became the customary place for burning refuse of all kinds, so that the smoke and blaze of constant fires were to be seen there: so in the Jewish imagination the world to come had its Valley of Hinnom, its Gehenna, in which the foulness and rubbish of life was to be finally destroyed. Our Lord Adopted this figure of speech to express the spiritual process by which in a future life after the Judgement evil that had survived would be consumed, the process through which evil men must pass after the Judgement.
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Here again it is not to be believed that Jesus Christ uses current terms and opinions without intending to convey by them some substantial truth. A material fire is, of course, not to be thought of; but some spiritual analogue to the scorching, disintegrating, purifying, power of fire to which those must be subjected who have carried with them to the very judgement-seat of Christ a will still in rebellion against the good and perfect will of God. It it be asked whether this fire is purgatorial, a purgatory however which, unlike the mediaeval conception, will follow the last Judgement, or whether it is just to consume or annihilate, or whether again, it will neither purify nor destroy, but is simply punitive, no very certain answer can be given, and I would deprecate any dogmatic assertion and even any speculation on the subject. It is, our Lord teaches, an αἰώνιον πῦρ, an aeonian fire, a ‘fire that cannot be quenched, an σβέννυται πῦρ: but He does not, as far as I can judge, say whether or not souls may, in God’s mercy, win their way through it, and come forth with their dross only consumed. All that we know definitely and certainly is that evil cannot dwell in the Kingdom of the Father, or in the Kingdom of the Son, when all things shall have been subjected to Him, and that the means of purification which are now open to us through the Sacrifice of the Cross and the gift of the Spirit are limited in their opperation to the present age which ends with the Second Coming of the Lord. If there is still a way of escape, it must be so only by passing through fire.
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But if we refuse to dogmatize on this awful subject of future punishments, let us not in our teaching minimize the seriousness of Christ’s words upon it. If we may not add to His words, neither may we take away; and it is particularly necessary at the present time to guard against the latter temptation, because there is a very general and dangerous tendency to belittle sin and the consequence of sin. And it is the very essence of Christ’s teaching, without which His life and death would be meaningless, to represent sin as the greatest misery which man can suffer: and that except it is repented of and forgiven, the misery of the sinner in the world to come must be as much greater than his present misery, as the spiritual and eternal is greater than the temporal and material.”
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* H. B. Swete, “The Parables of The Kingdom: A Course of Lectures”, pp 190 – 195.

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