The Doctrine of Endless Punishment

Topic: Hell Type: Book Author: W. G. T. Shedd 

Table of Contents

Introduction and the History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment
The Biblical Argument for the Doctrine of Endless Punishment
The Rational Argument for the Doctrine of Endless Punishment


Two reprints have been used: 1. Banner of Truth ("First Banner of Truth edition 1986" says "First published 1885" (1885 only refers to the original publication of the last chapter -- "The Rational Argument" in The North American Review) -- back of title page date is probably taken from the date with the signature at the end of the preface or from the first sentence of the preface. This is really a photocopy of the second edition of 1887). 2. Klock & Klock, 1980 reprint of the original 1886 edition. Originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1886. BOTH are photo copies. The following copy follows the 1887 edition and inserts the footnotes or endnotes in the text.

Spelling, punctuation, language (including Bible quotations), have been updated and Bible references have been added where missing. Italics are reserved for Bible quotations and book titles. Bold type is used for emphasis.

A. Allison Lewis--October 1995

Biographical Information
William Greenough Thayer Shedd

Presbyterian; born at Acton: MA, June 21, 1820; died at New York: NY, November 17, 1894. He was graduated from the University of Vermont, 1839; and from Andover Theological Seminary, 1843; became Congregational pastor at Brandon, VT, 1844; professor of English literature, University of Vermont, 1845; of sacred rhetoric in Auburn (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary, 1852; of church history in Andover (Congregational) Theological Seminary, 1853; associate pastor of the Brick (Presbyterian) Church, New York City, 1862; professor of Biblical literature in Union Theological Seminary, New York: NY, 1863-74; and of systematic theology, 1874-90, where he was known for the rigid logic and close compactness of his system, embodied in his Dogmatic Theology (vols. i.-ii., Worcester, 1889; vol. iii., New York, 1894). He translated from the German of Francis Theremin, Eloquence a Virtue (New York: NY, 1850), and H. E. F. Guericke’s Manual of Church History (2 vols., Andover: MA, 1860-70); and wrote A History of Christian Doctrine (2 vols., New York: NY, 1865); Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (1867); Sermons to the Natural Man (1871); Theological Essays (1877); Commentary on Romans (1879); Sermons to the Spiritual Man (1884); The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1886); and Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (New York: NY, 1893). [Bibliography: J. De Witt, in Presbyterian and Reformed Review, vi (1895), 295-322. Reprinted in: Jackson, Samuel Macauley, ed. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. X) New York: NY, Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1911. pp. 388-9].

Shedd was a direct descendant of the New England Puritans and a "child of the manse." With an other worldliness mind-set he had a "tendency to live in view of the unseen."

He taught and wrote against the errors of universalism which were entering the Presbyterian churches. In his Theological Essays Dr. Shedd included a lengthy treatment on "The Doctrine of Original Sin." Later, in his Dogmatic Theology he extended his treatment to include a thorough refutation of erroneous views of the atonement. Finally, in The Biblical Doctrine of Endless Punishment, he provided a clear apology for the nature and the necessity for judgment following the rejection of Christ’s offer of salvation.


At the request of the editor of the North American Review, the author of this book prepared an argument in defense of the doctrine of Endless Punishment, which was published in the number of that periodical for February, 1885. It was agreed that the writer should have the right to republish it at a future time. Only the rational argument was presented in the article. The author now reproduces it, adding the Biblical argument, and a brief historical sketch.

Every doctrine has its day to be attacked, and defended. Just now, that of Eternal Retribution is strenuously combated, not only outside of the church, but to some extent within it. Whoever preaches it is said, by some, not "to preach to the times"--as if the sin of this time were privileged, and stood in a different relation to the law and judgment of God, from that of other times.

The argument from Scripture here given turns principally upon the meaning of Sheol and Hades, and of the adjective aiwnioV. In determining the signification of the former, the author has relied mainly upon the logic and aim of the inspired writers. The reasoning of a writer is a clue to his technical terms. When his object unquestionably is to alarm and deter, it is rational to infer that his phraseology has a meaning in his own mind that is adapted to this. When, therefore, the wicked are threatened with a Sheol and a Hades, it must be an erroneous interpretation that empties them of all the force of a threat. And such is the interpretation which denies that either term denotes the place of retributive suffering.

It is freely acknowledged, that if the meaning of Sheol, or Hades, is to be derived from the usage of a majority of the fathers, and the schoolmen generally, it has no special and exclusive reference to the wicked, and is not of the nature of an evil for them alone. If Sheol, or Hades, is nothing but an underworld for all souls, then it is morally nondescriptive, and whatever of danger there may be in an underworld pertains alike to the righteous and the wicked. But if the Scriptures themselves, and their interpretation by a portion of the fathers, and the reformers generally, are consulted, it is claimed that the position taken in this book, that Sheol, or Hades, is the equivalent of the modern Hell, will hold. It is with eschatology as it is with ecclesiastical polity. If the authority of the Post Nicene fathers and the schoolmen is conceded to be the chief determinant of the questions at issue, the prelatist [priestly traditions] will carry the day. But if the Bible and the interpretation of the Apostolic and Reformation churches are appealed to, he [the prelatist] will lose it. The simplicity of the faith was departed from, when under Hellenizing influences in the church the Heathen Orcus was substituted for the Biblical Hades. A superstitious and materializing eschatology came in along with the corruption of the Christian system, and held sway for a thousand years, until the return to the Scriptures themselves by the leaders of the Reformation, restored the older and purer type of doctrine.

Although the author, in the prosecution of the argument, does not turn aside to enlarge on the awfulness of the doctrine of Endless Punishment, it must not be supposed that he is unimpressed by it. It is a doctrine which throws in its solemn shadows on even the most careless human life. No man is utterly indifferent to the possible issues of the great Hereafter. The fall and eternal ruin of an immortal spirit is the most dreadful event conceivable. That some of God’s rational and self-determined creatures will forever be in deadly enmity to Him, cannot be thought of without sorrow and awe. But from the nature of finite free will, it is a possibility; and it is revealed to us as a fact, as clearly as the facts of incarnation and redemption. Neither the Christian ministry, nor the Christian church, are responsible for the doctrine of Eternal Perdition. It is given in charge to the ministry, and to the church, by the Lord Christ Himself, in His last commission, as a truth to be preached to every creature. If they are false to this trust, His message to the church of Ephesus is for them: Remember from where you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come to you quickly, and will remove your candlestick out of his place, except you repent [REV 2:5]. The question, How many are to be saved? the Son of God refused to answer--thereby implying that His mercy is unobligated and sovereign. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy [ROM 9:15]. It becomes man the sinner, not to murmur at this. That incarnate God Who has vicariously suffered more for man’s sin, than any man has or will personally, surely has the right to determine the method and extent of His own self-immolating compassion. To the transgressor who says, Lord, if You will, You can make me clean, He answers, I will, be clean [MAR 1:40]. But to the transgressor who looks on redemption as something to which he is entitled, He replies, as in the parable, Is it not lawful for Me, to do what I will with My own? [MAT 20:15].

The kindest way, therefore, for both the preacher and the hearer is, to follow the revealed Word of God, and teach the plain and exact truth. Eternal perdition is like any other danger. In order to escape danger, one must believe in it. Disbelief of it is sure destruction. To be forewarned, is to be forearmed. Those who foresee an evil, prepare for it and avoid it; but the simple pass on and are punished [PRO 22:3]. Speaking generally, those who believe that there is a Hell, and intelligently fear it, as they are commanded to do by Christ Himself, will escape it; and those who deny that there is a Hell, and ridicule it, will fall into it. Hence the minister of Christ must be as plain as Christ, as solemn as Christ, and as tender as Christ, in the announcement of this fearful truth. When He was come near, He beheld the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, at least in this your day, the things which belong to your peace! but now they are hid from your eyes’ [LUK 19:41, 42].

The dogmatic bearings of Universalism are not to be overlooked. The rejection of the doctrine of Endless Punishment cuts the ground from under the gospel. Salvation supposes a prior damnation. He who denies that he deserves eternal death cannot be saved from it so long as he persists in his denial [emphasis added - aal]. If his denial is the truth, he needs no salvation. If his denial is an error, the error prevents penitence for sin, and this prevents pardon. No error, consequently, is more fatal than that of Universalism. It blots out the attribute of retributive justice; transmutes sin into misfortune, instead of guilt; turns all suffering into chastisement; converts the atonement work of Christ into moral influence; and makes it a debt due to man, instead of an unmerited boon from God. No teaching is more radical and revolutionizing, in its influence upon the Christian system. The attempt to retain the evangelical theology in connection with it is futile.

The destructive nature of the error is still more apparent in practical theology. Could it be proved that the Christian church have been deceived in finding the doctrine of Endless Punishment in the Christian Scriptures, and that there is no such thing, havoc would be made of all the liturgies of the Church, as well as of its literature. Consider the following petition from the "Morning Prayer for Families," in the Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal church: "Keep in our minds a lively remembrance of that great day in which we must give a strict account of our thoughts, words, and actions, and according to the works done in the body be eternally rewarded or punished by Him Whom You have appointed the Judge of living and dead, Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord." Suppose, after uttering this petition, the person to say to himself: "There is no eternal punishment." Consider, again, that searching and anguished cry from the Litany: "From Your wrath, and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us," and imagine a bystander to say to the soul that has just agonized this prayer: "You fool, there is no everlasting damnation." And the effect of this denial is equally destructive in devotional literature. Take the doctrine of eternal perdition, and the antithetic doctrine of eternal salvation, out of the Confessions of Augustine; out of the Sermons of Chrysostom; out of the Imitation of à Kempis; out of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; out of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying; out of Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest; and what is left?



The author avails himself of the opportunity afforded by the issue of a second edition of this volume, to revise and somewhat enlarge it. He has added pp. 163-169 to the body of the work, for the purpose of calling attention to the important truth that the necessity for endless retribution is grounded in the action of man, not of God. "God," says Augustine [Trinity IV. xii], "made not death [Wisdom 1:13], since He was not Himself the cause of death; but yet death was inflicted on the sinner through His most just retribution. Just as the judge inflicts punishment on the guilty; yet it is not the justice of the judge, but the desert of the crime, which is the cause of the punishment." It is the author of sin who is the author of Hell. The opponent of endless punishment should, therefore, level his reproaches against sin and the sinner, not against holiness and God.

An Appendix has also been added to the volume, for the purpose of expanding and strengthening some of the positions taken in it. The material is to a considerable extent derived from the writings of others. It is put into the form of notes, which are referred to by their several numbers on the pages of the volume [changed the form and these notes have been integrated into the text within square brackets - aal].

NEW YORK, November 4, 1887.

Chapter 1


The common opinion in the Ancient church was, that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith; as much so as belief in the trinity. But as there were some church fathers who deviated from the creed of the church respecting the doctrine of the trinity, so there were some who dissented from it in respect to that of eternal retribution. The deviation in eschatology, however, was far less extensive than in trinitarianism. The Semi-Arian and Arian heresies involved and troubled the Ancient church much more seriously, than did the Universalism of that period. Long controversies, ending in ecumenical councils and formulated statements, were the consequence of the Trinitarian errors, but no ecumenical council, and no authoritative counter-statement, was required to prevent the spread of the tenet of Restoration. Having so little even seeming support in scripture and reason, it gradually died out of the Ancient church by its own intrinsic mortality. Neander [II., 737], speaking of the second period in his arrangement (312-590), when there was more Restorationism than in the first, says: "The doctrine of eternal punishment continued, as in the preceding period, to be dominant in the creed of the church. Yet, in the Oriental church, in which, with the exception of those subjects immediately connected with the doctrinal controversies, there was greater freedom and latitude of development, many respectable church teachers still stood forth, without injuring their reputation for orthodoxy, as advocates of the opposite doctrine, until the time when the Origenistic disputes caused the agreement with Origen in respect to this point also [viz., Restorationism] to be considered as something decidedly heretical." Hagenbach [History of Doctrine, § 78] says of the period down to AD 250: "Notions more or less gross prevailed concerning the punishment of the wicked, which most of the fathers regarded as eternal."

The principal deviation from the catholic doctrine of endless retribution was in the Alexandrine school, founded by Clement and Origen. The position taken by them was, that "the punishments of the condemned are not eternal, but only remedial; the Devil himself being capable of amelioration" [Gieseler. I. 214]. Thus early was the question raised, whether the suffering to which Christ sentences the wicked is for the purpose of correcting and educating the transgressor, or of vindicating and satisfying the law he has broken--a question which is the key to the whole controversy. For, if the individual criminal is of greater consequence than the universal law, then the suffering must refer principally to him and his interests. But if the law is of more importance than any individual, then the suffering must refer principally to it. 1[The design of chastisement as such rests entirely in the person chastised; but punishment properly so called--for it may, of course, include sometimes an element of chastisement (as in human punishment)--has to vindicate the universal against the individual. Chastisement, accordingly, as that other word for it, discipline, implies (paideia from paiV), presupposes a tutorial relationship of which punishment as such knows nothing" [Müller, On Sin, I., 245, Urwick's Trans.]].

Origen’s Restorationism grew naturally out of his view of human liberty. He held that the liberty of indifference and the power of contrary choice, instead of simple self-determination, are the substance of freedom. These belong inalienably and forever to the nature of the finite will. They cannot be destroyed, even by apostasy and sin. Consequently, there is forever a possibility of a self-conversion of the will in either direction. Free will may fall into sin at any time; and free will may turn to God at any time. This led to Origen’s theory of an endless alternation of falls and recoveries, of hells and heavens; so that practically he taught nothing but a hell. For, as Augustine [City of God, XXI., 17] remarks, in his refutation of Origen, "heaven with the prospect of losing it is misery." "Origen’s theory," says Neander [I., 656], "concerning the necessary mutability of will in created beings, led him to infer that evil, ever germinating afresh, would still continue to render necessary new processes of purification, and new worlds destined for the restoration of fallen beings, until all should again be brought back from manifoldness to unity, so that there was to be a constant interchange between fall and redemption, between unity and manifoldness."

Traces, more or less distinct, of a belief in the future restoration of the wicked are found in Didymus of Alexandria, the two Gregories, and also in Diodore of Tarsus, and Theodore of Mopsuestia--the leaders of the Antiochian school. All of these were more or less under the influence of Origen. Origen’s opinions, however, both in trinitarianism and eschatology, were strongly combated in his own time by the great body of contemporary fathers, and subsequently by the church under the lead of Epiphanius, Jerome, and Augustine.

The Mediaeval church was virtually a unit in holding the doctrine of Endless Punishment. The Reformation churches, both Lutheran and Calvinistic, adopted the historical and catholic opinion.

Since the Reformation, Universalism, Restorationism, and Annihilation, have been asserted by some sects and many individuals. But these tenets have never been adopted by those ecclesiastical denominations which hold, in their integrity, the cardinal doctrines of the trinity and incarnation, the apostasy and redemption, although they have exerted some influence within these denominations. None of the evangelical churches have introduced the doctrine of Universalism, in any form of it, into their symbolical books. The denial of endless punishment is usually associated with the denial of those tenets which are logically and closely connected with it--such as original sin, vicarious atonement, and regeneration. Of these, vicarious atonement is the most incompatible of any with universal salvation; because the latter doctrine, as has been observed, implies that suffering for sin is remedial only, while the former implies that it is retributive. Suffering that is merely educational does not require a vicarious atonement in order to release from it. But suffering that is judicial and punitive can be released from the transgressor, only by being inflicted upon a substitute. He, therefore, who denies personal penalty must, logically, deny vicarious penalty. If the sinner himself is not obliged by justice to suffer in order to satisfy the law he has violated, then, certainly, no one needs suffer for him for this purpose.

Within the present century, Universalism has obtained a stronger hold upon German theology than upon any other, and has considerably vitiated it. It grew up in connection with the rationalism and pantheism which have been more powerful in Germany than elsewhere. Rationalism has many of the characteristics of deism, and is vehemently polemic toward evangelical truth. That it should combat the doctrines of sin and atonement is natural. Pantheism, on the other hand, has to some extent been mingled with evangelical elements. A class of anti-rationalistic theologians, in Germany, whose opinions are influenced more or less by Spinoza and Schelling, accept the doctrines of the trinity, incarnation, apostasy, and redemption, and assert the ultimate recovery from sin of all mankind. Schleiermacher, the founder of this school, whose system is a remarkable blending of the gospel and pantheism, has done much toward the spread of Restorationism. The following are the objections which this theologian [Glaubenslehre, § 163, Anhang] makes to eternal damnation: "1. Christ’s words in MAT 25:46; MAR 9:44; JOH 5:29, are figurative. 2. The passage 1CO 15:25, 26, teaches that all evil shall be overcome. 3. Misery cannot increase, but must decrease. If it is bodily misery, custom habituates to endurance, and there is less and less suffering instead of more and more. 2[Satan, in Milton's Paradise Lost (II., 274-278), suggests that custom may mitigate the pains of Hell.

Our torments also may, in length of time,
Become our elements; these piercing fires
As soft as now severe; our temper changed
Into their temper; which must needs remove
The sensible of pain

If, on the other hand, it is mental suffering, this is remorse. The damned suffer more remorse in Hell than they do upon Earth. This proves that they are better men in Hell than upon Earth. They cannot, therefore, grow more wretched in Hell, but grow less so as they grow more remorseful. 4. The sympathy which the saved have with their former companions, who are in Hell, will prevent the happiness of the saved. The world of mankind, and also the whole universe, is so connected that the endless misery of a part will destroy the happiness of the remainder." 3[Respecting this very common objection, that the misery of a part of the human race will interfere with the happiness of the remainder, Müller [On Sin, I., 239] makes the following remark: "The primary meaning of krisiV is discrimination and separation, and implies that the main contrast between man in relation to the future state is made manifest by the cessation of intercourse between those who obey God, and those who resist him. Beings whose relations to God are diametrically opposite, and persistently so, differ so greatly from each other that other ties of relationship become as nothing in comparison. Bonds of union among men arising out of the relationships of natural life must give way of themselves, if the tie which binds man's spiritual consciousness and will to his Creator be on either side wholly severed. For those bonds have not in themselves an eternal significance, save so far as they are included in that relation to God which is of everlasting importance]. These objections appeal mainly to reason. But the two assumptions, that Hell is abolished by becoming used to it, and that remorse is of the nature of virtue, do not commend themselves to the intuitive convictions.

Besides the disciples of Schleiermacher, there are Trinitarian theologians standing upon the position of theism, who adopt some form of Universalism. Nitzsch [Dogmatics, § 219] teaches Restorationism. He cites in support of it only two passages out of the entire scriptures--namely, 1 Peter 3:19, which speaks of the preaching to the spirits in prison; and Hebrews 11:39, 40: These received not the promises. These two passages Nitzsch explains, as teaching that "there are traces of a capacity in another state of existence for comprehending salvation, and for a change and purification of mind;" and upon them solely he founds the sweeping assertion, that "it is the apostolic view, that for those who were unable in this world to know Christ in his truth and grace, there is a knowledge of the Redeemer in the other state of existence which is never inoperative, but is either judicial or quickening".

Rothe [Dogmatics, Th. II., Abth., ii. §§ 46-49, 124-131] contends for the annihilation of the impenitent wicked, in the sense of the extinction of self-consciousness. Yet he asserts that the aim of penalty is requital, and the satisfaction of justice--an aim that would be defeated by the extinction of remorse. Julius Müller [On Sin, II., 191, 418, 425] affirms that the sin against the Holy Spirit is never forgiven, because it implies such a hardness in sin as is incapable of penitence. But he holds that the offer of forgiveness through Christ will be made to every human being, here or hereafter. "Those who have never in this life had an opportunity of knowing the way of salvation will certainly be placed in a position to accept and enter upon this way of return, if they will, after their life on Earth is ended. We may venture to hope that in the interval between death and the judgment many serious misconceptions, which have hindered men from appropriating truth in this life, will be removed." The use of the term "misconception" would seem to imply that some who had the offer of salvation in this life, but had rejected it, will have the opportunity in the next life to correct their error in this. Dorner [Christian Doctrine, IV., 416-428], after giving the arguments for and against endless punishment, concludes with the remark that "we must be content with saying that the ultimate fate of individuals, namely, whether all will attain the blessed goal or not, remains veiled in mystery" [! see MAT 7:13, 14 - aal]. His further remark, that "there may be those eternally damned, so far as the abuse of freedom continues eternally, but, in this case, man has passed into another class of beings," looks in the direction of annihilation--suggesting that sin will finally destroy the humanity of man, and leave him a mere brute. Respecting the future offer of mercy, Dorner asserts that "the final judgment can take place for none before the gospel has been so addressed to him that free appropriation of the same was possible" [Christian Doctrine, III., 77].

Universalism has a slender exegetical basis. The Biblical data are found to be unmanageable, and resort is had to human feeling and sympathy. Its advocates quote sparingly from scripture. In particular, the words of Christ relating to eschatology are left with little citation or interpretation. Actual attempts by the Restorationist, to explain what the words, Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels [MAT 25:41], really mean, are rare. The most common device is to dismiss them, as Schleiermacher does, with the remark that they are figurative. Some words of Paul, on the other hand, whose views upon sin, election, and predestination, however, are not especially attractive to this class, are made to do yeoman’s service. Texts like Romans 5:18, As judgment came upon all men unto condemnation, so the free gift came upon all men unto justification; and 1 Corinthians 15:22, As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive; are explained wholly apart from their context, and by vocalizing [improperly emphasing] the word all. When Paul asserts that the free gift came upon all men unto justification [ROM 5:18], this is severed from the preceding verse, in which the all are described as those who receive abundance of grace, and of the gift of righteousness [ROM 5:17]. And when the same apostle affirms that in Christ shall all be made alive [1CO 15:22], no notice is taken of the fact mentioned in the succeeding verse, that not all men are in Christ--the clause, they that are Christ’s, at His coming, implying that there are some who are not Christ’s at His coming [1CO 15:23 - emphasis added - aal].

The small number of texts of scripture that can with any plausibility be made to teach Universalism sometimes leads to an ingenuity that is unfavorable to candid exegesis. The endeavor to escape the force of plain revelation introduces unnatural explanations. A curious example of caprice in interpretation is found in Ruetschi’s Kritik vom Sündenfall [p. 231]. To prove his assertion, that sin by its very nature finally ceases to be, he quotes Romans 6:23, The wages of sin is death. This means, according to him, that sin ultimately consumes and abolishes itself (muss sich schliesslich selbst verzehren und aufheben), and this is its wages or punishment. This essay actually obtained the prize offered by the Hague Association for the defense of the Christian Religion. This specimen of Biblical interpretation is matched by that of a recent advocate of "Conditional Immortality," who contends that Satan taught the natural immortality of the human soul when he said to Eve: You shall not surely die [GEN 3:4]; and that God taught its natural mortality in the words: You shall surely die [GEN 2:17].

Next Chapter

Return To Main Index

This Page Last Updated: 12/14/98 A. Allison Lewis