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DIFFERENT DEGREES OF FUTURE REWARDS AND
Jonn 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 judgment 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 between 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 labor 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. The 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 selfdenial 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 judgment seat. Very true, it is not thus in human judicature. The same punishment is inflicted upon crimes of very different color 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.
power. We have no knowledge 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 nineteenth chapter of St 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, Lord, thy pound hath gained five pounds; and he said likewise to him, Be thou also over five cities. Here, you observe, both were virtuous, both were rewarded ; but the virtue
and diligence of the one was double that of the other, and his reward was double. When our Saviour speaks of the last in the kingdom of heaven, it shows that there are greater and less in that kingdom. When he says that it shall be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida, by reason of the different warnings they had received, it shows that of the punishment to be denounced at that awful day, some will be more tolerable and some more
These are our Saviour's own declarations. St Paul supposes different degrees of punishment in the tenth chapter of Hebrews, twentyeighth, twentyninth verses; He that despised Moses's law died without mercy; of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God?' And still more positively he notices the difference, in the rewards we are to expect, proportioned to our different merit, 2 Cor. ix. 6; This I say, he which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. These words are directly to our purpose. We are authorized to say, therefore, that there are passages of scripture which plainly suppose a distinction of rewards, and a distinction of punishments.
And we further say, that there are none which contradict it. It is true there are various passages of scripture which speak of a place of happiness, and a place of misery, of being received into, and sitting down in the kingdom of heaven, and of being thrust out into outer darkness where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched; of the children of God, and the children of the devil; of saving the soul and losing it. These at first sight, and strictly taken, seem to intimate that there are two, and only two states, one of great happiness, and the other of great misery; and that one or other of these two conditions is to be the destiny of every man. But if you come to consider these expressions, what is there in them
after all ? Do not we ourselves perpetually speak of the good and the bad, of the righteous and the wicked, of virtue and vice, of well doers and evil doers? Yet do these expressions imply, or are the persons who use them understood to assert, that all the good are equally good, and all the bad equally bad ? that because we mention only two distinctions of actions, of virtue and vice, that there are only two? that there are not also degrees and distinctions in different virtues and betwixt different vices? In like manner we speak of happiness and misery, and of many men as either enjoying the one or suffering the other; but do these terms exclude all degrees of difference in happiness and misery? Do they import that the happy are equally blessed, or the miserable equally wretched? If, therefore, no such construction is to be put on the terms and phrases we are every day using, is it to be insisted on, or supposed to be intended, in similar terms and phrases when they occur in scripture?
Having then shown that it is both reasonable and scriptural to believe that there are prepared for us rewards and punishments of every possible degree, from the highest happiness down to extreme misery, I proceed to consider the uses to be made of the doctrine, for the purpose of resolving the difficulties and objections before stated. And first, as to the objection that is made to the scriptures, that they have not defined with exactness the precise quantity of virtue necessary to salvation, we conceive that this, so far as we can judge, was impracticable, and upon the plan we have explained unnecessary. It is impracticable; for however a revelation be imparted originally to the prophet or apostle who receives the inspiration from God, it must be communicated from him to others, by the ordinary and natural vehicle of language. It behoves those who make the objection to show that any form of words could be devised, which might express this quantity, or that it is possible to constitute such a standard of moral attainments, accommodated to the almost infinite diversities which subsist in the capacities and opportunities of different men. Would it be equitable, according to our conceptions of equity, to exact the same from an unbelieving Indian, that might reasonably be required of a well informed Christian ? and if you attempt to compute the degrees that exist between these two extremes, they will soon be found too numerous and too various to be ascertained by any description which words can convey. Secondly, it is unnecessary; for upon the plan of a gradation of rewards and punishments, whatever advancement we make in virtue, we procure a proportionable accession of future happiness; as on the other hand, any accumulation of vice is the treasuring up so much wrath against the day of wrath ; which is all that is needful for us to know or to act upon. And this contains an answer to the objection, that there is no encouragement to strive after superior attainments in virtue and holiness. According to this account there is the greatest. In our Father's house are many mansions, of different capacities for happiness; and it is our business, as it is in our power, to promote and advance our good hereafter, by suitable endeavours and exertions here. Again, we are thus enabled to reply to the difficulty that has been started, that this distribution of rewards and pun