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DIFFERENT DEGREES OF FUTURE REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS.
JOHN V. 29.
They that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation.
THERE is a difference introduced into religion of this sort. From the text-from the mention made of separation merely, and placing one sort on the right hand and the other on the left-from the familiar notions and method of speaking of heaven and hell, of salvation and perdition, we are led to imagine that the human species at the day of judgement will be divided into two kinds-that the one will be advanced in heaven to supreme happiness; that the other will be consigned in hell to extreme misery. This is a way of thinking we may easily and naturally fall into; but when we come to consider it further, there are two or three principal difficulties attending this opinion on the subject.
First; it seems a defect in the Christian religion, that it nowhere points out the precise quantity of
innocence or virtue sufficient for our salvation, or necessary to entitle us to admission into heaven.
Secondly; that there is no encouragement, according to this account, to go beyond, or strive after a superior degree of holiness.
Thirdly; that we cannot easily comprehend how it should be a just dispensation of Providence to advance one part of mankind to supreme happiness, and commit the other to extreme misery, when there cannot be much to choose beween the worst of the one sort, and the best of the other-between the best who are excluded from heaven, and the worst who are received into it.
Now for the satisfaction of these several doubts and difficulties, I shall endeavour to show, that it is most agreeable to our conception of divine justice, and also consonant to the language of Scripture, to suppose that there are prepared for us rewards and punishments of all possible degrees and varieties, from the most exalted happiness down to extreme misery; upon which plan satisfactory answers may be given to all the difficulties just now stated.
First; that it is in its nature impossible, and upon this plan needless, to ascertain the precise quantity of virtue necessary to salvation.
Secondly; that upon this plan our labour is never in vain-that we have encouragement to proceed from virtue to virtue, from one degree of goodness to another, till we attain the utmost which our ability and opportunity admit of.
Thirdly; that this plan totally subverts all objection to the divine economy, in not adapting the degrees of reward and punishment, to the degrees of virtue and vice.
These points I shall speak to distinctly, and in their order. It is most agreeable to our natural conceptions of justice to suppose that there are prepared for us rewards and punishments of every possible degree. It is hardly necessary to contend that there exists an almost infinite variety of virtue and vice, of merit and demerit, in different persons.
conduct of any great number of persons is seldom alike, or the same, though they may be all virtuous, or all innocent, or all vicious; but that is not the whole. The same conduct is capable of very different degrees of virtue or guilt, according to the abilities, the opportunities, and the temptations. In acts of goodness, the merit will be proportionably increased, as the abilities to perform them are less, and as greater acts of self-denial and exertion are requisite. The opportunities, which happen to different men of doing good, are also very various, and constitute a proportionable variety in the character; for every opportunity neglected becomes a vice. In estimating the guilt of criminal actions, it would be extremely unfair to have no consideration by which the criminal was urged. A man who steals for want is wrong, but it would be hard to place the crime upon a level with his who steals to support his vices, to indulge his vanity, to supply his pleasures. Now the actual
conduct of different persons being different, and the same conduct differing in merit and demerit, according to the daily opportunity and temptation which the agent experienced, all which circumstances are subject to a multiplied variety; it must follow, that guilt and virtue in different individuals differ in every possible degree-that whatever reason there is to expect from the Divine Being that he will reward virtue and punish vice at all, we have the same reason to expect, as far as the light of nature goes, that he will adapt his rewards and punishments in exact proportion to the virtue or guilt of those who stand at his judgement seat. Very true it is not thus in human judicature. The same punishment is inflicted upon crimes of very different colour and malignancy; and crimes of the same denomination have very different guilt in different persons and different circumstances. But this is a defect in human laws, and proceeds from a defect of power. We have no know. ledge of each other's motives and circumstances, to be able to ascertain with precision our mutual merit or guilt; or, if we could, there exists not within the compass of human treatment that precise gradation of punishment which is necessary to a perfect retribution of so much pain for so much guilt; but no such defect either of knowledge or power can be imputed to the Deity. He knows the secrets of our hearts, the true motive and the exact value of every virtue, all the circumstances of aggravation and mitigation which attend every crime; and he can form
and mould his creatures, so as to make them susceptible of every degree of happiness, and of every degree of misery. But in truth, this part of the subject, the consistency of the plan with natural reason and justice, admits of little doubt: the only doubt, if any, is whether it be sufficiently consonant with the several declarations of Scripture.
I propose to show but three passages of Scripture, which expressly affirm this difference and gradation of rewards and punishments, and that there are none inconsistent with it. Passages to this effect are, first, Luke xii. 47. The servant which knew his Lord's will and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. Here different degrees of punishment are plainly asserted. Both were evil doers, but in a different degree. Accordingly both were to be punished, but with a proportionable difference-both were to be beaten, but one with many stripes, the other with few. A diversity of rewards is also to be collected from the parable of the ten pieces of money, as recorded in the 19th chapter of Saint Luke. "And he called his ten servants, and delivered unto them ten pounds; and when he returned, the first came, saying, Thy pound hath gained ten pounds; and he said unto him, Well done, thou good servant; because thou hast been faithful over a very little, have thou authority over ten cities. And the second came, saying,