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Man is not only made capable of looking forward, but is strongly inclined to do it, and cannot avoid a greater or less degree of thought and concern about futurity, and the good or evil which he shall be the subject of hereafter. These are the objects of all his hopes and fears, and afford great scope for the continual exercise of them, and those affections which attend them; by which he is influenced, more or less, in all his conduct. And though most of mankind appear to confine their prospects chiefly or altogether within the narrow limits of this life, and feel little concerned about that which may take place after they leave this world, yet who is there that will not pronounce this very unreasonable, on the least serious reflection, and consider it as an evidence, among a thousand others, of human depravity?
We are certainly capable of existence in a future state, yea, of continuing to exist without end, and there is nothing in reason or experience to render this improbable, but much to induce us to believe that this present life is only preparatory to our existing in an endless state hereafter, and that we shall be happy or miserable there, according as we are the objects of the favor of our Maker, or not. Therefore, this our future existence - is the most interesting and important to us, and demands our greatest and most serious attention and concern, and the highest exercise of our hopes and fears.
It is true, indeed, that when we turn our thoughts to this subject, we at once feel that reason alone will never enable us to determine, without hesitation, many important inquiries about a future state; and that mankind would be left in great and most undesirable uncertainty and darkness respecting all things that relate to the invisible world, without some other assistance; and that it is, therefore, greatly desirable, and of infinite importance, that God, who is able, should assist man by a particular revelation of his will and design with regard to a future state. And this might not only be a ground of hope that God may thus favor his creature, man, — to whom he grants so many favors in his providence, and shows himself propitious, - but affords good reason to conclude he has actually given such a revelation, and may serve to excite our gratitude to God, who find ourselves in actual possession of a revelation which bears every mark, and is attended with all the evidence, of its divine original that can be desired, or even conceived; and ought to lead us to feel the great obligations we are under to attend to it with a serious and honest mind, ready to receive the dictates of Heaven on this important point, whatever we may find to be revealed.
All who admit the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be from God, agree that it is there revealed that they who shall be redeemed from sin, and be made happy by Christ the Savior, shall have an unceasing existence, in perfect happiness, in his everlasting kingdom; but they have differed much about the future existence and punishment of those who do not embrace the gospel in this life, but live and die in their sins. Most who have lived in the Christian world have professed to believe that it is as clearly revealed that the latter shall exist forever in endless punishment as that the former shall be happy without end; but a number have denied this. Some have expressed a confidence that all the wicked shall cease to exist, and be annihilated, either immediately upon the death of the body, or after they have continued in misery and been punished during a proper length of time. Others are confident it can be proved from Scripture that all the human race will be finally and eternally happy. Some of these allow that they who die in their sins will be punished for a season, even after the day of judgment, as an effectual discipline to bring them to repentance; but others confidently assert that all will be happy at the day of judgment, and some of these hold that all do enter into perfect blessedness when they leave this world.
The design of the following inquiry is to assist all who are desirous to know the truth, in examining this point in the light of the sacred oracles, and to help them to see the reason ableness of what is there revealed concerning it, and to answer the most material objections that have been made against it. There seems to be a special call for this now, as the denial of endless punishment has been more open and common of late, and the doctrine of universal salvation, though in different forms, is zealously espoused by many.
We have no reason to think the difference of sentiment on so important and interesting a point, among those who profess to form their different opinions from divine revelation, is owing to any defect in the Bible, or because the truth respecting it is not revealed with sufficient plainness. This diversity and opposition of sentiment, therefore, must be wholly owing to the faulty prejudices and evil biases in the minds of men, which indispose them to believe the truth, and lead them to misunderstand and pervert the Holy Scriptures, even where that which is revealed is very plain and decisive.
Whoever attends to the different and opposite sentiments on almost every point in religion which have been and are embraced, even by those who have the Bible in their hands and appeal to that for the support of what they believe, will have sufficient reason to determine that no standing revelation can be given from heaven, however perfect, plain, and decisive, that cannot be misunderstood and perverted by men of corrupt and perverse minds. If divine revelation be so formed that they cannot fail of seeing every important truth contained in it who give suitable attention to it, and have a meek, humble, honest mind, it is suited to answer all the desirable ends of a revelation, however it may be abused and perverted by those who do not love the truth, in support of the most gross and hurtful errors.
We, therefore, have all desirable encouragement to search the Scriptures, that we may learn what will be the certain consequence of living and dying in sin — what will be the punishment of the wicked in a future state, as it is certainly there plainly revealed; and however men have differed, - and many have run into great and dangerous errors on this point, — we may have the comfortable assurance that we shall know what is the truth respecting this important article, if with meekness and impartiality we be ready to receive and love what God has revealed. But as many have failed of this, and have come to the Bible full of prejudices against the truth there revealed, and disposed to believe nothing contained in divine revelation which is not agreeable to their corrupted minds, and so have not believed the truth, and have been justly given up to strong delusion, to believe a lie, and we are liable to the same sin and dreadful consequence, - let us therefore take heed to ourselves, and humbly, with earnestness and constancy, look to the Father of lights, that ne may give us an honest heart, and so open our minds to understand the Scriptures that we may find the truth, after which we are now inquiring, and have our hearts established in it, and be directed to improve it to his glory, our own eternal good, and the benefit of our neighbor.