Friday, November 28, 2014

John Locke & Eternal Punishment

Locke made it known that many considered the doctrine of eternal torment to be of “little consistent with the justice or goodness of the great and infinite God…thereby doing violence to the whole tenour of the New Testament.”[1] Far from post-modernism and the emergent movement, Locke nevertheless considered such the doctrine of eternal torment to be inconsistent with justice and goodness of God. This should not be dismissed as sentimentalism, but rather an acute awareness of the world around him and possibly reflects the heart of a man who had the potential for being a powerful preacher. One wonders to what extent his influence would’ve increased or decreased had he chosen to pursue the clergy. Locke says, “this [mortality] is so clear in these cited places, and so much the current of the New Testament, that nobody can deny, but that the doctrine of the gospel is, that death came on all men by Adam’s sin; only they differ about the signification of the word death: for some will have it to be a state of guilt, wherein not only [Adam], but all his posterity was so involved, that every one descended of him deserves endless torment, in hell-fire.”[2] The debate about ‘death’ and ‘immortality’ has apparently been raging since Locke’s day, and modern annihilationists may rest in comfort that we may indeed continue to be misunderstood as Locke was.[3]

Locke continues, “I shall say nothing more here, how far, in the apprehensions of men, this consists with the justice and goodness of God, having mentioned it above: 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. Could anyone be supposed, by a law, that says, “For felony thou shalt die,” not that he should lose his life; but be kept alive in perpetual, exquisite torments? And would anyone think himself fairly dealt with, that was so used?”[4] While one may simply and silently concur with such an acute observation, there are arguments made against Locke and he takes it upon himself to clarify his remarks. 

The rejoinder deserves to be quoted in full: 
“To this, they would have it be also a state of necessary sinning, and provoking God in every action that men do: a yet harder sense of the word death than the other. God says, that “in the day that thou eatest of the forbidden fruit, thou shalt die;” i. e. thou and thy posterity shall be, ever after, incapable of doing any thing, but what shall be sinful and provoking to me and shall justly deserve my wrath and indignation. Could a worthy man be supposed to put such terms upon the obedience of his subjects? Much less can the righteous God be supposed, as a punishment of one sin, wherewith he is displeased, to put man under the necessity of sinning continually, and so multiplying the provocation. The reason of this strange interpretation, we shall perhaps find, in some mistaken places of the New Testament. I must confess, by death here, I can understand nothing but a ceasing to be, the losing of all actions of life and sense. Such a death came on Adam, and all his posterity, by his first disobedience in paradise; under which death they should have lain for ever, had it not been for the redemption by Jesus Christ. If by death, threatened to Adam, were meant the corruption of human nature in his posterity, ’tis strange, that the New Testament should not any-where take notice of it, and tell us, that corruption seized on all, because of Adam’s transgression, as well as it tells us so of death. But, as I remember, every one’s sin is charged upon himself only.”[5]  
Locke even takes up the challenge of the issue of the unevangelized, offering several thoughts. One being the promise of God to Israel, to persuade people to embrace what was revealed to them.[6] The more interesting is that Locke didn’t believe that all men had to have perfect doctrine, suggesting, “I desire those who tell us, that God will not (nay, some go so far as to say, cannot) accept any, who do not believe every article of their particular creeds and systems, to consider, why God, out of his infinite mercy, cannot as well justify men now, for believing Jesus of Nazareth to be the promised Messiah, the King and Deliverer.”[7] While he was not a systematic theologian[8], he was acutely aware that each idea was built upon each other. To remove one isn’t to devolve the other argument; each argument is independent, but yet related to the other argument. Therefore, Locke’s views were reciprocal with each other, never exclusive. Immortality and resurrection are married, and this appears in the shadow of the eschatological cross.


[1] The Reasonableness of Christianity, 8.
[2] Ibid, 9
[3] Modern Annihilationists may also take comfort in the knowledge that with an advocate as articulate as Locke, he was surely not alone in expressing his views.
[4] The Reasonableness of Christianity, 9.
[5] Ibid, 9.
[6] The Reasonableness of Christianity, 81. Locke appears to embrace a view of ‘limited’ knowledge for those who haven’t heard. To believe in a little, or what has been revealed to them, is enough for God. God doesn’t expect more than what he has given.
[7] Ibid,  81.
[8] Similarly, some scholars and theologians have claimed that Paul wasn’t a systematic theologian either. C.f. E.P. Sanders, Paul. This does not diminish the brilliance of Paul and John Locke; it merely showcases that perhaps they were closer aligned than many have assumed.

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