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The Inevitable Alternative

by A. T. Pierson (1837-1911)

"And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."—Matthew 25:46

A. T. PiersonThis is, without exception, the most unpopular text in the Bible. There is no one text upon which ministers of Christ so infrequently preach, and from which the bulk of hearers so constantly shrink as from this verse. Yet we are bidden to declare the whole counsel of God, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. And, if for no other reason than this, that the declaration of the entire message of God is the essential condition of freeing our own garments from the blood of lost souls, there is no minister of Christ that ought to preach without at times calling attention to a subject like this.

Now, will you do me the justice to believe that it is with the greatest reluctance that I select this subject, acknowledging that there is connected with it a very awful and profound mystery, but believing also that it constitutes a part of the message, and therefore is essential to a faithful declaration of the message.

Now, in the first place, let me say that every effort has been made to get rid of the disagreeable and the offensive features of this message. We may say that this one verse in the Gospel according to Matthew has been assailed by more people in the Church and out of the Church, and that it has been the subject of more dispute and determined effort to wrench it out of its obvious meaning, than any other one verse in Scripture, and yet it absolutely refuses to be put away from the Scriptures or explained out of them. It stands there for ever. It is in all the great manuscripts. There is no variation in the reading in different manuscripts. There is no question about the original force of the words that are here employed, and the simple fact is that it is there, and you cannot get rid of it. You may try with your watering-pots to put out the stars, but they will shine on just the same. And all the efforts to get that verse out of the Bible never have succeeded; and until you rend the Bible to pieces and burn it up you can never get it out; and even then it will stay. For example, it has been said that the word translated "eternal" does not mean eternal at all. It is a Greek word, aionios. That word is from the Greek word aion, which is the same as the English word eon or age; and it has been said that this word means age-long, that it is a punishment that reaches through a definite period, but not necessarily through eternity. But the same word precisely is applied to life in the other section of the verse: "but the righteous unto life eternal." Though the word is translated "everlasting" in the first part of the verse, and "eternal" in the last part of the verse, it is the same original word in both; and if the word means age-long as to punishment, does it not mean age-long as to life? And, if that be the case, then if there is no guarantee in this verse here for the everlasting punishment of the wicked, there is no guarantee here for the everlasting life of the righteous.

But then notice that, while that word does mean age-long, so does the word "eternal." The word "eternal" is from the Latin word ætas, an age, which is the exact correspondent of the Greek word aion, an age; so that our word eternal means nothing but age-long. We have to take words to express ideas that are far beyond us. We have to take words that fall within the compass of our experience. We have never known a life that did not end, nor a life in which there was no succession of days and hours, and years and centuries; and so when we try to express the idea of a life that is not bounded by those limits, we take the longest period of which we know anything—an age. We take the most indefinite period of which we know anything—an age; and we use that word to express the conception of eternity. Now, if you will stop a moment you will see the reason of this. Suppose the word that is here translated eternal meant year-long. A year is a definite cycle of time, three hundred and sixty-five days. It marks the period of the revolution of the earth round the sun in its orbit, and so a year means a definite period. But the word "age" means an indefinite length of time, and so we have no word that comes so near to eternity as the word age, for there are no limits to mark the beginning, no limits to mark the end, and that is the characteristic of eternity. It has no beginning, no end; and, because an age has no definite limits this side and no definite limits that side, it is the nearest word we have, coming from our experience, to express eternity. And so the Greek having no other word, said "aionios"—age-long, and the Latin, having no other word, compounds one from the word "ætas," age, and we take our word eternal from the same Latin word "ætas."

Then somebody else says, "This does not refer to duration at all, but refers to the quality or sphere of punishment and life. The temporal punishment is that which is administered here. Eternal punishment is that which is administered there." That might be all true enough, and no doubt is so far as it goes; but how about the life? Does eternal life express only a different quality of life, and has it no reference to duration? Well, then, we have no pledge of immortality beyond the grave. Somebody else says that this word refers, or this whole scene refers, not to the judgment of individuals but to the judgment of nations; that it is nations that are drawn before the throne of God and are there judged, and that this refers, therefore, to the destruction of nations. I am inclined to think that this is, without doubt, the original fact as to this passage; and yet I cannot but believe that there is taught here, as well as in many other passages of the Word of God, the awful doctrine which men will not believe, and which many ministers of Christ will not preach. If this were the only passage where this awful truth is taught we should gladly pass it by as a doubtful passage; but when it is confirmed by many others, what then shall we do? Let me read you three passages of Scripture. First in the Book of Daniel, the 12th chapter, 1st and 2nd verses, especially the second verse: "And many of them which sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Now, you cannot get that out of Daniel; and there is no judgment of nations in Daniel. Then look in the 5th chapter of the Gospel according to John. See our Lord's distinct teaching in this case: " Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation." There is no judgment of nations there. The words "eternity" and "everlasting" are not used, but there is a resurrection unto life and a resurrection unto damnation. Then in the 8th chapter of the same Gospel according to John, we have these words (verses 21, 23 and 24): "Then said Jesus again unto them, I go My way, and ye shall seek Me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go ye cannot come." There is no more solemn statement in the Word of God than that: "Ye shall die in your sins. Whither I go, ye cannot come." There is everlasting separation. "Ye are from beneath; I am from above; ye are of this world; I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins." There is plain teaching, and it is so plain that it needs not a word of explanation. "I obey a law of attraction upward, and you obey that of law of attraction downward. If ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die with the attraction downward, and you cannot come where I come, for you gravitate to one center and I gravitate to another."

So much, then, by way of clearing the rubbish out of our path.

Now let us for a few moments solemnly consider this text. "These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."

I shall treat this subject from a different point of view, possibly, from any to which you are accustomed. I am going to regard it, not in the light of Holy Scripture, not in the light of God's decrees, not in the light of God's distinct teachings in the revelation that He has given us in the gospel, but in the light of the revelation of common sense and reason, and conscience and memory, and observation and experience on the part of men.

Now let us be perfectly honest in dealing with this profound and awe-inspiring subject.

In the first place, there are radical differences in the character of men and women in this world. Nobody will dispute that. These radical differences of character are called "radical" because they reach from the root to the utmost branch. There is a radical difference between an apple tree and a pear tree, and a peach tree and a plum tree, between thorns and thistles, and olive trees and myrtle trees. We know a radical difference to exist between different men and different women. Marked distinctions of character appear on either side of us in the human family. Nobody will dispute that; so I shall not argue that.

My second proposition is that men of different characters follow different kinds of conduct. A man's character determines his course. Whenever he is left free, all things being equal, a man's character will determine his employment. One man will take to one form of employment, and another to another, when they are left free to choose. Certain circumstances will sometimes compel a man to do a work that is distasteful to him, or constrains him to do a work that is not altogether agreeable to him. But if you let men have their own way their conduct will be determined by their character. The nature of their employment will be in sympathy with their tastes and their convictions, with their notions and their affections, and with their resolutions. And so will the character of a man's enjoyments be determined by the character of the man himself. There are some men that will take forms of pleasure to which I would myself feel not in the slightest drawn, or you either; and there are other things to which I should feel drawn in the way of enjoyment that would minister no pleasure to many of my fellow-men. My character determines my enjoyment whenever I am free to pursue my pleasure in my own way.

Again, my character will determine my associations. "Birds of a feather flock together" is an old proverb, and it is emphatically true among men. If you let men and women have their own way, the like will go together. There will never be a union between like and unlike. So when the Apostles in primitive times were let loose from the presence of the council they went "to their own company"; and that is what every man and woman will do if you let such alone. If you do not restrict by outward restraints, or limits, or laws, every man and woman will seek their own like in society. Now, employment, enjoyment, and association are the three things that determine what we call the course of a man's life; and therefore I think that no one will dispute me when I say that character determines the course of life.

My third proposition is that the character and the course of life make up the condition. When the Chinese proverb says that heaven is a good heart, and hell is a bad heart, the Chinese proverb is very nearly right. No set of conditions can produce happiness. No set of conditions can produce misery, apart from the condition of the character itself. If you will take a forlorn hovel in which there are wretchedness, and want, and woe to-day, and put a godly woman there—a woman of a sunny disposition, a woman of industrious habits, a woman of economy and frugality, a woman who has the love of God and the love of man shed abroad in her own heart, whose very eyes carry the love of God in them, and whose face is lightened with the smile of heaven—put such a woman as that in the midst of such a hovel, and she will make the whole hovel full of sunlight. And you take a palace and put into it a queen that is corrupt, whose imaginations are vile, whose affections are malignant, whose whole disposition is hateful and repulsive, and there will be a shadow over the palace. You cannot make a man's condition radiant with gold or silver or precious stones. And you cannot keep out the light of joy and happiness by building a hovel with mud walls, even if there be neither windows nor doors. It is character that makes condition. In the long run, men and women are happy or miserable according to what they are, not according to what they have. Wealth never made yet a happy home. Poverty never made yet a miserable home. You must have sin if you want the worst of suffering, and you must have holiness and virtue if you want the highest enjoyment. Nobody will dispute this.

I do not say that condition may not be somewhat affected by our surroundings, but I say that the heart of the man or woman is what settles after all the real condition in this life.

My fourth proposition is this—that, whenever character is fixed beyond reformation, condition is settled beyond change. Here are two men that we may think of to illustrate this. One is passing eastward, and the other is passing westward. They are close together now. They could turn about and shake hands now. There are not twelve inches of space between them as they stand back to back. One begins to walk eastward, and continues to walk eastward. The other begins to walk westward, and continues to walk westward; and so, every step, they get farther apart; and if it were not that the earth was round, and by going eastward and westward they would come together on the other side eventually—if this was a perpetual path towards the east without limit, and this a perpetual path towards the west without limit, and they should continue to go on in these divergent careers, they never would come together. They would stand farther and farther apart every hour, every day, every year, every century, every millennium, through all the boundless succession of eternal cycles.

Character is every day getting more and more fixed in every man and every woman in this world. Why? Because your employments are getting to be habitual, because your enjoyments are getting to be habitual, because your associations are getting to be habitual, because the very notions that you have in your minds, and the affections that you have in your heart, and the resolutions that you cherish in your will, are getting to be as firmly fixed as a piece of wood is fixed when it is petrified, or as water is fixed when it is turned to ice.

Now, I repeat, first, there are radical differences in the character. Second, these radical differences in character beget different courses of life. Third, these radical differences in character and differences in courses of life beget different conditions or states. And, fourth, if you get the character fixed, the condition is settled; and if a man cannot change his radical character he cannot change his radical condition. If he gets where he for ever hates holiness, he can never be a happy man. If he gets where he for ever loves holiness, he cannot be a wretched man. It is utterly out of the question. The love of holiness would make a heaven, and the love of sin would make a hell, if there were none already. Now, no one can dispute what I have said so far, and therefore you cannot dispute the next point, which is the last one—that there is no reason to believe that character will be changed beyond this world, if it is not changed in this world.

Let us see what influences there are in this world that change men and women radically. I think they may be all brought under the following heads: first, the knowledge of the truth; second, the voice of conscience; third, the voice of God; fourth, the power of association. Those four things are the great causes that change men radically. Sometimes a man has been ignorant, and he comes to a knowledge of the truth, and the truth is seen in a new light and seen in a new force, and has new effect upon him; and the consequence is that his character undergoes a radical change. Or sometimes a man comes to listen to the voice of conscience, where, otherwise, he has been accustomed to dismiss it. He stops and hearkens to the remonstrance of his moral sense, which says, "This is wrong. Do not do it. This is right. Do that which you know to be right." And he begins to listen. He sees that his conscience is right. He sees that the course of sin which he has been following has been leading him into misery and wretchedness. He sees that the right which he ought to have followed would have led him into corresponding conditions of happiness and well-being; and he begins to listen to his conscience; and conscience is a revolutionist. Conscience is a conspirator—not against God: it is a conspirator against the devil; and conscience has the power, if you will submit to it, to turn the empire of Satan upside down and put God on the throne where He belongs.

Then the third way in which men are changed in this world is by the obvious interposition of God. For instance, here comes a providence that smites, a judgment that convinces, an earthquake, an awful flood, a lightning stroke, and men begin to think that there is a God. They hear His voice in the thunder; they feel the throb of His great indignant heart in the earthquake; and they feel the rush of His awful wrath in devouring flames; and they begin to turn unto the Lord and seek after righteousness. Or, again, there is a power of association that changes them. Here, for instance, are a godly father and mother. They bring holy influences to bear upon a recreant son. The Bible is read; prayer is offered; a holy example is set before the boy; and he comes by and by to feel the influence of that holy example. Perhaps he never goes astray from God from the beginning, because there has always been this restraining and guiding influence round about him. Now, you will all confess with me that the four great causes which turn men are these: the knowledge of the truth, the voice of conscience within, the voice of God's judgment; or, it may be, His Holy Word, or it may be His Divine Spirit without, or the associations of life that bring us into new lines of activity, and teach us the power of new forms of enjoyment, or, possibly, restrain from evil and guide in paths of righteousness and holiness. Now, if you have not been changed by these things in this world, have you any reason to believe that you will be changed by them in the life to come?

I want to make a solemn statement regarding people who are not children of God, and I want to speak as a brother and a friend. If they have learned to resist the truth here, have you any reason to believe that they would not resist it there? Have not they always had the voice of conscience? And if conscience does not lead men to God here, have you any reason to believe that it would lead them to God there? Is there going to be any tremendous power in the moral sense in eternity to change a character that it could not change here? If the providence of God here, if the messages of the Gospel here, if the strivings of the Spirit here, have not affected their moral and spiritual character, have you any reason to believe that they will be affected there? Is there any hint in the Word of God that the Holy Ghost is going to be in hell to urge sinners to repentance? Can you find a single passage in the Word of God that indicates that the work of the Spirit is to continue beyond the bounds of the present life? If you can find it, I should like to see where it is, for I have never found it.

There is one solemn passage in the Book of Revelation that looks as though the time were coming when character is going to become unchanging. "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still." If the tree falls it lies along the ground as it falls. It is never again erected. When a man falls at the throw of death, he lies as he falls. There is no hint in the Bible of a change of character beyond this world.

Perhaps some of you think that punishment in the next world will reform a sinner. Did you ever know punishment to reform a sinner here? I never did. God deals very gently and tenderly with us here even in chastisement and in judgment, because He wants to move the world to righteousness by the interposition of His hand. And yet you will find that when God sweeps with tremendous judgment over the earth as with the besom of destruction, men in a few hours, or days, go right along in their old courses of sin just as before, and there is nothing that is as speedily forgotten as the awful judgments of Almighty God. If you want to see in the Book of Revelation what God thinks about the power of punishment in the future state, read those awful words: "They gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven." Even while in the torment of their punishment, they gnawed their tongues like a madman in the intensest of suffering, they only blasphemed God.

I once lived between two neighbours, and I want to tell you about these two men as an illustration of my theme. Here was my house: here was one on the right hand of me, and the other on the left of me; and those two men, although they lived close by each other and close by me, were as far apart as the east is from the west. They had radical differences in character. The man here was an industrious man: the man there was a lazy man. The man here was a gentle and good-tempered man: the man there was an abusive man. He abused even his own wife. The man here was an intelligent man and loved knowledge: the man there was an ignorant man and loved his ignorance. The man here had an aversion to strong drink, and even to tobacco; that man there was for ever drinking, and for ever smoking and chewing. This man was bringing up his child in the fear of God: that man would take his pipe out of his mouth and put it into the mouth of a little child eighteen months old, and teach the child to suck the pipe and get the taste of the tobacco, and learn while a baby the vicious indulgence. That man on the Sabbath day went to church to worship God; this man on the Sabbath day went out into the farms about to train horses. This man was open to every suggestion of virtue and purity; that man shut his ears to every remonstrance against his body-and-soul-destroying vices. This man loved Christ; that man blasphemed Him. This man studied his Bible; that man never looked at a page of it. This man was daily on his knees in prayer; that man never used the name of Christ except with curses and oaths. Radical differences of character. Not one solitary point in sympathy. And I saw these two men, during the time that I lived between them, getting farther and farther apart in character, farther and farther apart in course of life, farther and farther apart in tastes, and dispositions, and preferences, farther and farther apart in all that makes up the condition of a soul toward God and toward man.

Now, answer me this question, you unbeliever, you who say that this text of Scripture is one that any man ought to be ashamed to preach to you, and who, perhaps, say that the Bible ought to be ashamed to have such a text in it: you who say that, whatever else is true, eternal punishment is not true: you who, perhaps, dare to blaspheme and say that you would not have a God that was such a God. Let me hear you answer my question. Take these two neighbours of mine. I have no malice against either of them. I love the one, and I love the soul of the other, and I have sat down and talked with him about his own spiritual condition, and sought to lead him to a better life. I love both these men. I think I can honestly say that I would die for that neighbour, who is destroying body and soul, if my death would save him. But it is a perfectly patent fact that those two men are facing different ways, and that they are going different ways, and that they are bound to go different ways. Now, answer me one question. If these men die and continue to go on different ways—if beyond this life there is nothing radically to change the character of that man, who is a vicious, idle, lazy, worthless, ignorant, unprincipled man, I would like to tell you what is likely to bring these men together in the hereafter-life, since nothing has ever brought them together in this life? If you put that other neighbour of mine over there in hell, he would start a prayer-meeting. If you put that neighbour of mine in heaven he would gather, if it were possible, someone else to him to help him blaspheme. Put Cain and Abel together. Could they live together? There is no use in disputing God.

I firmly believe that, while we fight the doctrine of eternal punishment, that doctrine is laid not only in the Word of God, but in the basis of the human constitution. Character is radically different. Conduct follows character. Course of life is determined by character and conduct. Condition depends on character. If you get character where it cannot change, you get condition where it cannot change; and therefore if before the throne of God men simply part to go different ways, as in this world, they will part to go different ways, and if they continue to go different ways for ever, that will settle eternally the condition of everlasting happiness on the one hand, and the condition of everlasting misery on the other hand.

I have not referred to the divine side at all, because I wanted to call your attention to the human side. I have not dwelt on revelation, because I want to appeal to reason. I have not talked of supernatural law, because I wanted to appeal to natural law and to bring you back to ask yourselves this question: when I find the awful testimony of God, is not that testimony confirmed in the mouth of two or three awful witnesses—my reason on the one hand and my conscience on the other?

In conclusion, I would indicate the only source of deliverance from the searching significance of this text. First of all, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, said these words. It gave Him no pleasure to say these words. They were wrenched from Him by the awful necessity of being true to souls. There is salvation for you in the same blessed Christ that said, "These shall go away into everlasting punishment, and the righteous unto life eternal." And the only salvation for you is in a radical change of character. "Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." If you will come to Christ for a new heart, if you will get your notions of things changed, and your affections changed, and your resolutions changed, if you will get new tastes, new spiritual tastes, a relish for something which you have hated, and a disrelish for something which you have loved, then you turn square round in your course. Your back has been to God, but your face shall be toward Him. Your face has been toward hell, but it shall henceforth be toward heaven, and a radical change in your spiritual tastes shall generate a radical change in your condition, your course of life, your destiny; and so, as you turn about to God, you shall find that destiny has turned about for you—that hell is shut against you, and heaven is open for you.

From Dr. Pierson and His Message... edited by J. Kennedy Maclean. London: Marshall Brothers, [1911?].

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