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Life In Christ

Books that will challenge your current Biblical perspective.
The Fire That Consumes
The Parousia
The Biblical Church
Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross

by Edward White

Elliot Stock, 62 Paternoster Row, London 1875

Chapter X

On the Nature of the Death Threatened to the Ancestors Of Mankind in Paradise as yhe Penalty of Sin.

'"LIFE," as applied to the condition of the blest, is usually understood to mean a "happy life." And that theirs will be a happy life, we are indeed plainly taught; but I do not think we are anywhere taught that the word "life" does of itself necessarily imply happiness. If so, indeed, it would be a mere tautology' to speak of a" happy life;" and a contradiction to speak of a "miserable life;" which we know is not the case, according to the usage of any language. In all ages and countries, "life" has always been applied in ordinary discourse to a wretched life no less properly than to a happy one. If, therefore, we suppose the hearers of Jesus and His apostles to have understood, as nearly as possible, the words employed in their ordinary sense, they must naturally have conceived them to mean (if they were taught nothing to the contrary), that the condemned were really and literally to be "destroyed" and cease to exist; not that they were to continue for ever to exist in a state of wretchedness.'—Abp. Whately, Lectures on a Future State.

'THE tree of knowledge of good and evil'•has exercised the curiosity of critics in every age; but the most obvious account of it appears to be, that it was a tree by touching or refraining from which our first parents might demonstrate whether they would or would not lead a life of faith in God. It would seem to have been conveyed to them that the tasting of this tree would communicate to themselves that knowledge of good and evil which now they were required to receive upon the authority of God.1 Simple, therefore, as the elements of the temptation were, all those principles were involved which had been illustrated in the most momentous trials of their descendants,—the claims of Divine Authority, and the rule of choice between the seductions of pride, passion, or falsehood, and the all-obliging commandment of the Supreme.

The tree of life in the midst of the garden was plainly accessible to Adam until the hour of his transgression; for we read that permission was granted to eat of every tree of the garden, with the single exception of the tree of knowledge. The effect of the tree of life seems to have been to repair 'the decays of nature, and to prevent the approach of death; for we read that after his sin God said,' Now, M'i~~-t~ lest he put forth (or as Swedenborg rightly interprets, in order that he may not put forth) his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever;'—implying a strong negative, that having chosen the creature rather than the Creator he should not possess that immortal life, which, under the divine will, access to the tree of life would have sealed to him in obedience.

It is unnecessary to discuss the questions, wherefore the gift of abiding life was to be communicated through so extraordinary a medium as a tree in a mortal world; or whether, after a short period of probation, Adam would have been made 'equal to the angels,' and translated to heaven. It is of more importance to learn the actual results of his probation.

We suppose, then, that from the simple account furnished in Genesis, we are to understand that Adam was not created in the possession of immortality either in his body or soul; yet, also, that he was not created under a definite sentence of death, as was the rest of the creation around him, since the prospect of 'living for ever' by the help of the 'tree of life' was open to him upon the condition of obedience during his trial;—in other words, the first man was not created immortal, but was placed on probation in order to become so. Viewed as he was in himself, there was a noble creature,—the offspring of God,—endowed with capacities for ruling over the world, and for holding communion with Heaven; but as to his origin, his foundation was in the dust, and the image of the Creator was impressed upon a nature, if a 'little lower than the angels,' still also no higher than the animals as to unconditional immortality. His upright form and 'human face divine,' gave token of a spirit formed for intercourse with the Eternal; yet his feet rested on the same earth which gave support to all the 'creeping things' which it brought forth, and, like the subjects of his dominion, 'his breath was in his nostrils.'

Thus according to Moses, was Adam placed in Paradise; midway between the angels and the animals, on trial for everlasting life; midway between an existence which was as a shadow that passeth away, and one of which it should be beyond the powers of any created mind to calculate or describe the duration. When we attempt to conceive of the heights of blessedness which are attainable in such a life, of that 'far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory' which would have been the reward of obedience; and contrast with this the alternative of returning to the dust to perish, what finite mind can appreciate fully the significance of the trial of the first Man in the garden of Eden? But when, to such reflections upon this destiny, we add the consideration, that in his hand were placed, perhaps, the lives of his countless descendants, language can give no utterance to the sense of infinite loss involved in the conception of his failure.

These statements, however, are founded upon the assumption of that which must be more particularly investigated, the literal interpretation of the threatening held out to this first man on his admission into Paradise: 'IN THE DAY THAT THOU EATEST THEREOF, THOU SHALT SURELY DIE.'

A person who had not previously formed an acquaintance with the commentaries of modern times would certainly be astonished to learn that the threatening of death was explained to signify something different from a literal loss of life, something less and yet more than the utter destruction of Adam's nature as a man. How would the earliest readers of Moses understand it? It can scarcely be thought very likely that the terms of the menace would suggest, under all the circumstances, to an ordinary reader of those Israelites for whom Moses wrote, any other idea than that which we assume as the true one,—that the offender should endure the penalty of capital punishment, and forfeit his life for his•sin. 'By death,' says John Locke, 'some men understand endless torments in hell fire; but it seems a strange way of understanding a law, which requires the plainest and directest words, that by death should be meant eternal life in misery. Can anyone be supposed to intend, by a law which says for felony thou shalt surely die-not that he should lose his life, but be kept alive in exquisite and perpetual torments? And would anyone think himself fairly dealt with that was so used? '-(Reasonableness of Christianity.) There seems to be nothing in the language employed intended to convey any other idea than that the punishment for transgression was immediate destruction. There is no intimation of a prolonged existence to be afterwards permitted, either in time or eternity; the threatening is brief, direct, decisive: 'In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.' Since Adam was not yet immortal, the signification could not be, as is sometimes supposed, that in the day of his sin he should become mortal,' or capable of death (for that which is not yet immortal, in the sense of incapable of death, must be in that sense mortal already), and, therefore, it remains only to receive the terms in their most obvious sense, 'In the day of thy transgression, thou shalt be destroyed, shalt lose thy being as a Man.'

How would Adam have understood this threat for himself? It will probably be admitted that the sense in which the first man would have understood the threatening of death was the true one; for it would be difficult to reconcile it with justice or mercy in the Almighty, if He were imagined to deliver His threatenings to a newly-created being, in enigmas which were beyond the grasp of his faculties, and whose real meaning 'surpassed in horror the apprehension of every intellect but the Omniscient.' Now it would appear that unless Adam were inspired with the knowledge of the comments of Augustinian divines, or at least of some rhetorical and rare forms of speech in the Greek poets, he could affix no other interpretation to the word 'death' than that to which he was accustomed, when he employed it, in his short use of language beforehand, in relation to the animal system around him. Life and death must have been opposites to him, as to us; and surely, in the awful crisis of a world, when, if ever, clear terms should be used, we can scarcely imagine that words would be employed in a curious metaphorical sense, entirely opposed to their first signification. With whatever facility, therefore, readers of modem times can dismiss the original notion of death in the employment of the term, and substitute that of endless misery to the exclusion of the idea of destruction, we cannot impute the same extraordinary process of thought to Adam, but must conclude that he would have understood the threatening to mean the dissolution of his nature, the opposite of' taking of the tree of life 'and , living for ever.'

And when we remember that in all probability Adam had then no idea whatever of his 'soul,' as capable of a separate existence, apart from his body, but conceived of his being as one, we shall find a still greater difficulty in supposing that he could have been metaphysical enough to conclude that death signified death for his body, and everlasting life in misery for that 'understanding which was in his inward parts.' But if Adam could not have understood the threatening thus, without some special revelation to enable him to do so, and if that revelation does not appear in the record, it follows that theology has no right to make a gratuitous supposition of its existence, but ought to interpret the words in such a manner as to avoid a slander on the preventive justice of Heaven. For if even the Chinese government considers itself obliged to read to the people periodically the criminal code, in order that they may know what to expect as its punishments, it ill becomes us to impute to the Highest Tribunal a complete concealment of the true meaning of that menace under which the first man in Paradise commenced his probation. The primitive sense of the threatening of death must surely go far to determine its meaning afterwards.

Yet, notwithstanding the existence of these arguments, this threatening is metaphorically understood in modem times. It is alleged by innumerable divines, that whether Adam understood the meaning or not, the menace of death conveyed the complex notion of literal dissolution for his body, called temporal death, and of everlasting existence in misery for his disembodied soul. This latter portion of the curse is denominated spiritual and eternal death, and is conceived to combine in itself the triple notion of eternal existence, moral degradation, and consequent misery in alienation from the Father of spirits. It was supposed to follow from the immortality of the soul, as an appointment of God. By these interpreters the expression, 'In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,' is taken to signify, not death in the day of transgression, but only a liability to death of the body at some future time; so that the life of Adam being prolonged, and a race in his own image springing from him, that race is born 'by nature children of wrath;' liable not only to death of the body, but also to everlasting misery of the soul, or death 'in all its senses.'

It will probably become evident to anyone who devotes even a few moments to the rationally careful study of this phrase, 'everlasting misery,'—(a phrase which may indeed convey but little to a mind armed with a determination not to think of it, but which confounds and almost paralyses the meditative spirit,—) that such an interpretation of the term death ought not to be taken for granted. The allegation of New Testament authority for it is of little avail; for those passages of the New Testament, which are supposed to fix the metaphorical signification of the original curse, have been themselves first interpreted by the rule of a theory founded upon a perversion of these earliest statements of Scripture—a theory based on the inadmissible assumption of the immortality of the soul. And if neither reason nor Scripture permit us to lay as a foundation that exalted conception of man's spiritual part, the whole fabric of interpretations, reared afterwards upon it, falls to the ground

With a view to a determination of this question, let us now observe, in reference to the ordinary belief, that the death threatened to Adam included the curse of everlasting existence in misery for his 'soul':—

I. First, that our original authority utters not one syllable on the subject. It is true that caution is needful in the use of any argument drawn from the silence of an Old Testament writer, especially in the earlier portions of the revelation. It may be urged, that the second and third chapters of Genesis were the brief statements of 'mysteries,' which succeeding revelations were given to develop; and that, therefore, the greater regard is due to the larger inspired commentary of subsequent prophets, if such exist. Yet, on the other hand, we cannot but observe that the chief outlines of the Paradisiacal history have been generally received in their plain, unvarnished sense; a valid argument in favour of so understanding all its parts, and in bar of suggested additions whether of poetry or prose, wherever the literal sense is not forbidden by subsequent declarations, and does not contradict the doctrine of redemption.

There is, besides, a wide difference between a veiled promise and a veiled threatening. The former may be worthy of divine wisdom and goodness; the latter seems irreconcilable with divine justice. The blessing of Christ in the Gospel might fitly be promised under the figurative expression, that 'the seed of the woman should crush the serpent's head;' but the curse of the law, which called for the intervention of mercy, should surely be expressed in all the length and breadth of its terribleness. Can any 'honest and good heart' (and let us remember that the Maker of such men, according to Christ, has 'much more,' rather than less, goodness Himself; Matt. 7:2) suppose, that in the original threatening, a term would be employed which must primarily suggest the idea of an infliction, in its literal sense already sufficiently tremendous—'Thou shalt die!'—and yet, that behind that screen there was concealed a deeper meaning, which transcended the conception of all but the Infinite Intelligence? Is it credible that He who alone knew what an eternity of misery involved, and who in after ages sent His prophets to mourn, without any limit to their loud lamentations, over the merely temporal calamities of His people,—as may be seen in the Hebrew books of Isaiah and Jeremiah—would, in this first fixing of the conditions of human probation, have failed to denote as clearly the positive infliction of suffering intended, as the privation which transgression required? And again, when the curse had been incurred, is it to be believed, that a total silence would be preserved by the Judge on that part of it, which was essentially the curse, after all, and that the stress of the Divine Attention would be directed to that bodily decease, as it is termed, which was, when compared with the impending eternal misery of the spirit, but as a grain of sand to the universe, or one point of space to infinity?

II. In addition to the foregoing consideration, the view which it has been shown that Scripture takes of the nature of man is opposed to this interpretation. It has been pointed out that, according to the Bible, man is essentially a complex being, consisting of body and soul, presenting his characteristic 'image' in the 'flesh.' It is this complex nature which the later dispensations of Heaven regard, and which, therefore, we may presume, the primeval dispensation regarded likewise. It follows from this, that if death, threatened to the man, involved his everlasting existence in misery, that menace could not have contemplated the spirit alone; for the spirit alone is not man. If the Ruler of Heaven had intended an endless infliction of suffering upon the Man, the curse would have demanded the associated body to share in that suffering. The body would not have been permitted to die. We are borne out in this statement by the fact that when it is intended, in consequence of the abuse of a new probation, to punish the wicked of mankind, it is declared that Divine power will raise the bodies of the 'unjust' from the grave to undergo the infliction, of whatever nature that may be. But since it is rightly admitted, even by the writers in question, that the original curse contemplated no eternal infliction of pain upon the body of Adam, but only its dissolution, we argue that it is an unwarrantable imagination that the spirit alone was destined to endure an eternity of suffering; for why should the curse of the law take an eternal effect of infliction upon one-half of his nature, when both the promise and the curse of the gospel, or new system of trial for recovery, are directed to the whole of it?

III. Still further evidence that literal death, a loss of life for the compound man, without eternal infliction upon the soul alone, was the curse of the Adamic trial, occurs in the argument of the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. In that place, summing up his previous reasonings on justification by Christ•alone, without the deeds of the law, S. Paul thus concludes, in verses, 12-14: 'Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the . world, and DEATH by sin, even so DEATH passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (13. For before the law, sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed where there is no law. 14.. Nevertheless, DEATH reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of Him that is to come.)' In the verses included in a parenthesis, viz., 13 and 14, it is plainly the object to show that the statement in the preceding sentence, verse 12, was correct; to wit, that death entered into the world by the offence of one man ;— that by the offence of that one man, all had been constituted sinners (as it is afterwards expressed), and rendered liable

to death. He therefore desires to prove that it was not the entrance of the Sinaitic law which brought death, the penalty of sin, into the world for the first time: since, says he, during the period which elapsed before the giving of the law, from Adam to Moses, men died :—yes, and even those that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression; by which it is to be apprehended, notwithstanding the objections of some critics, he means infants and young children; for sin, he adds, is not imputed where there is no law. Yet here sin was imputed, as is evident from the penalty endured; therefore there must have been some law more ancient than the Mosaic reigning from Adam to Moses,—a law which consigned personally-sinless beings to death, through reckoning to them the act of their ancestor in its consequences.

Now the argument is as follows:—In the fourteenth verse, when S. Paul declares that death reigned from Adam to Moses, over the personally innocent, it must be admitted that he intends no other death than that which is so plainly described, a dissolution of the humanity, without reference to a future eternal state of suffering for the soul. Else, we shall find ourselves called upon to receive the abominable doctrine that the souls of infants, children, idiots, 'from Adam to Moses,' went to a state of everlasting suffering after their natural death; and that, as is specially pointed out, for no fault of their own. But if this be an interpretation, repugnant alike to the whole temper of revelation, and to the character of God, it follows, by the rules of clear writing, that the term death stands for the same idea in the twelfth verse, which introduces the argument. It is inconceivable that the apostle has changed the signification of the same word in the distance between two verses; for if that be the case here, we might on the same principle conclude, that when he uses the term faith repeatedly in the course of his reasonings, he as often changes the meaning of the word in the same sentence, and thus introduces inextricable confusion into his language. If the terms 'loss of health ' were substituted for death throughout the passage, we should be surprised to learn that those terms were intended to convey their plain and obvious meaning in verse 14; but that in verse 12 they signified a loss of reputation and property, and the transmission of blindness to all his descendants. Yet this alteration of meaning would be as nothing compared with that supposed in two reputed senses of 'death:' dissolution, and interminable suffering in hell. If this observation be admitted as just—and it must be a strange exigency which requires the abandonment of this principle of interpretation, in a passage where no variation in the sense of the term is indicated by any of the usual marks of emphasis or allusion or explanation—then it follows, that the death which Adam brought into the world, as the wages of sin, was not an immortality in misery, after natural dissolution, but that literal dissolution of the compound nature of body and soul itself, —a definition which will embrace the cases both of Adam and of his innocent infantile posterity.

From these considerations, then, we conclude that the original threatening, 'In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,' was intended to signify a literal, immediate, and final dissolution of the nature of Adam as a man; his death, in the ordinary sense of the word, without any reference whatever to the state, or even to the survival, of the spirit beyond.2 Adam was placed in Paradise, a wonderful combination of earth and soul; allied to the animals, but a little lower than the angels, and endowed with the image of God; on probation, to 'see what was in his heart;' whether by obedience he would rise to the rank of immortals, and 'never die;' or whether, by disobedience, he would forfeit for himself, and for his posterity, the possession of that prospect of eternal glory which was visible from the heights of his glorious abode in the garden of Eden. This death was 'the curse of the law;' not merely of the Mosaic law, but of that law under which Adam was created at first, and of which the thunders of Sinai were a second manifestation. In the language of S. Paul, 'The letter killeth' (2 Cor. 3:6).

This seems, however, to be the fitting place to enter a caveat against a misconception which experience shows to exert a misleading influence in this discussion: we refer to the definitions of Death and Life. The advocates of the theology which is called in question in these pages have sometimes shown an anxiety to fasten upon their opponents a definition of death which shall restrict its meaning sharply to annihilation of substallce, and conversely to restrict the definition of eternal life to the naked idea of eternal conscious existence, knowing well that under such conditions of controversy a temporary verbal advantage is assured For nothing can be clearer than that these terms, when used respecting the destiny of a moral being under judgment, carry with them throughout the Scripture certain secondary associations of thought and feeling, the exclusion of which from view will lead to grave error,—error just as pernicious as that which arises from an exaggeration of these secondary associations into the place of the primary radical signification of the terms. Life in the Scripture, used in relation to the gift of eternal life, undoubtedly carries with it associations of holy spiritual blessedness, and death when spoken of as the penal destiny of the wicked undoubtedly carries with it in all cases associations of sin and suffering as its consequence, suffering leading to destruction. The measure of that suffering and even its nature will depend on the death which the sinner dies. If it be like that of Adam under the original law, a death incurred through sore temptation, the case is distinct from that second death of obstinately impenitent sinners, who have incurred 'many stripes' by rejecting the covenant of Divine mercy. This observation is required at the outset of the argument, inasmuch as writers of ability have attempted to nullify its general strength by insisting on the adoption of definitions to which it is impossible to yield assent.

Not less is it necessary to guard against the recurrence of difficulties springing from the attempt of some ingenious writers to fasten on us a metaphysical definition of death as an annihilation of substance. Of such annihilation in its strict sense we know nothing. The death of which we speak, is both in the first and the second death the destruction of the life of Humanity, by dissolution. What becomes of the elements which composed the Integer depends on circumstances. Where no reconstitution of the complex organism is designed, we suppose the destination of the spiritual element is similar to that of the animating principle in the death of animals. Where such reconstitution is designed, we suppose the spirit is preserved with a view to the resurrection of the Man. Those, whose philosophy requires them to maintain, contrary to their practice in relation to the animals, that the veritable humanity is found in the mind alone which survives in death, seem unable even to apprehend an argument in which the humanity is the living organism, including body and soul. When that complex organism is dissolved the Man is no more. Those who for any reason do not assent to this proposition are at war not only with us, but, may we not add, with true science and philosophy, the whole body of Scripture, and the best Christian antiquity.

The statement that the threatening of death as a penal infliction must be taken in the complex sense of suffering ending in destruction, has been opposed in the manner following. It has been said:3 'The destruction spoken of in the future cannot mean annihilation. Most of those who hold ultimate annihilation, hold that it is preceded by years or ages of suffering. Either these ages of suffering are the destruction, or they are not. If they are, then clearly destruction is consistent with continued life. If they are not the destruction but only precede it then the destruction is not inflicted when Christ comes, as it is said to be, and the threatened destruction which is always spoken of as a punishment, is a blessing, not a curse. It is either suffering or a most welcome release! From one or other of these conclusions we see no escape.'

Substituting in this extract the words destruction of life for annihilation, and disclaiming the belief that 'ages' of suffering are to precede that destruction, it is easy to unlock this dilemma, by attending to the language used in the Bible respecting the Death of Christ. All that is comprehended under that designation, is sometimes spoken of as 'the sufferings of Christ,'—sometimes simply as His 'death,' or the 'laying down of His life;' Suppose we apply the above-cited principle of criticism to these phrases. 'Either those dreadful sufferings precedent were the death of Christ, or they were not. If they were, then the death of Christ was not dissolution, but was consistent with His continued life as a man, and He never died in the sense in which the evangelists say that He did. If those sufferings were not the death, but only preceded it, then the Saviour was not "dying" during the passion; but only at a single moment between the two evenings at the feast of the passover; and, moreover, the death of Christ, which is always spoken of as a curse, was a blessing. Christ's death was either suffering, without dissolution, or it was a most welcome release. From one or other of these conclusions, we see no escape.'—What would be the answer to such an argument?—The general term death, as applied to Christ's sacrifice, signified the dissolution of His life, but included also the idea of those fearful mental and bodily sufferings, including the ' stripes' laid on Him by Pilate, which preceded and prepared it.

Another example will further illustrate this rule. In Deut. 28:58, Moses thus exhorts the Israelites: 'If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. Also every sickness and every plague which are not written in the book of the law, will the Lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed. And it shall come to pass, that as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the Lord will rejoice over you, to destroy you and bring you to nought.'

A comment on these curses of the law, on the model furnished above, would run as follows: 'Either these great plagues of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance, were the 'destruction' and the 'bringing to nought' here threatened, or they. were not. If they were, then the destruction was consistent with the continued life of Israel on the land whither the Lord led them to possess it; and the threatening never contemplated the literal death of the offenders, but solely the infliction in Palestine of great plagues of long continuance of a population which should exist in misery and in undiminished numbers, from age to age, and generation to generation. And the 'bringing them to nought,' and 'leaving them few in number,' meant that they

were to be made exceedingly wretched in the land of their possession. If on the other hand the 'great plagues of long continuance' were not the destruction, but only preceded it, then the destruction. was a 'most welcome release;' and it was a blessing that was held out to the Israelites when it was said they should be 'destroyed from off the land given to their fathers.'—Again, we may surmise that the reader would not find difficulty in allowing that a general threatening of death and destruction might well be taken to include the prolonged sufferings of the disobedient people, and the awful abolition of life in which those sufferings should terminate. He would certainly not argue either that destruction could not signify a complex curse of plagues and death, or that the plagues and sicknesses were to be everlasting. He would pronounce that the threatening intended was prolonged suffering ending in a death which was a 'curse,' and a loss of all the blessings of continued life in the holy land and in the Divine favour. It is a gradual and painful destruction. We propose to apply the same rule of interpretation to the more awful threatening of 'many stripes,' and of 'destruction of body and soul, in Gehenna,' held out to those who reject the gospel.

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1. Mr. Henry Rogers in the first edition of Creyson's Letters has an ingenious chapter on the impossibility of testing Adam by the 'ten commandments.'

2. In this sense the same words are used by the Almighty in threatening Abimelech (Gen. 20:7).

3. See this argument in Dr. Angus On Future Punishment, p. 25.

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