16 January 2014

Glimpsing Hell's miseries in that instant of pre-excuse guilt

by Dan Phillips

Jeremy Taylor was a pastor who'd been born two years after the KJV. In our circles, he's the author of the oft-misquoted and seldom-sourced statement, God "threatens terrible things to us if we would not be happy." Actually, it's "He threatened horrible things to us if we would not be happy," and the source is this sermon.

Though that is the quotation that brought me to read the sermon, it isn't what I'm bringing to you. In the sermon, Taylor takes a clear-eyed, sober, terrifying read of judgment to come. He's at great pains to see to it that no man take lightly the stroke that is about to fall, at any moment, on God's enemies.

In imagining the miseries of Hell, he does a brilliant and fearful thing. He slows time down. Taylor brings us to seize on that moment — those seconds, that split-second — after someone has been caught in a sin, and before he has invented a pretext falsely to shield and comfort himself.

Hear how Taylor does this, and what use he makes of it:
We may guess at the severity of the Judge by the lesser strokes of that judgment which He is pleased to send upon sinners in this world, to make them afraid of the horrible pains of doomsday–I mean the torments of an unquiet conscience, the amazement and confusions of some sins and some persons. For I have sometimes seen persons surprised in a base action, and taken in the circumstances of crafty theft and secret injustices, before their excuse was ready. They have changed their color, their speech hath faltered, their tongue stammered, their eyes did wander and fix nowhere, till shame made them sink into their hollow eye-pits to retreat from the images and circumstances of discovery; their wits are lost, their reason useless, the whole order of their soul is decomposed, and they neither see, nor feel, nor think, as they used to do, but they are broken into disorder by a stroke of damnation and a lesser stripe of hell; but then if you come to observe a guilty and a base murderer, a condemned traitor, and see him harassed first by an evil conscience, and then pulled in pieces by the hangman’s hooks, or broken upon sorrows and the wheel, we may then guess (as well as we can in this life) what the pains of that day shall be to accurst souls. But those we shall consider afterward in their proper
scene; now only we are to estimate the severity of our Judge by the intolerableness of an evil conscience; if guilt will make a man despair–and despair will make a man mad, confounded, and dissolved in all the regions of his senses and more noble faculties, that he shall neither feel, nor hear, nor see anything but specters and illusions, devils and frightful dreams, and hear noises, and shriek fearfully, and look pale and distracted, like a hopeless man from the horrors and confusions of a lost battle, upon which all his hopes did stand–then the wicked must at the day of judgment expect strange things and fearful, and such which now no language can express, and then no patience can endure. Then only it can truly be said that he is inflexible and inexorable. No prayers then can move Him, no groans can cause Him to pity thee; therefore pity thyself in time, that when the Judge comes thou mayest be one of the sons of everlasting mercy, to whom pity belongs as part of thine inheritance, for all else shall without any remorse (except His own) be condemned by the horrible sentence.
You see? Taylor takes that sickening moment of fear and guilt, and freeze-frames it long before the invention of the freeze-frame. He says, "Imagine existing like that forever. Imagine that sense of guilt and shame, of panic and nakedness — forever."

For will that not be Hell? Not The Great Divorce's image of sophisticated reprobates lost in self-deception, but of a mass of humanity whose "secrets" have been exposed, stripped naked, and judged, whose every rationalization has been blown away like the faintest wisp of steam, who now find themselves before the Judge's pitiless eye and under His condemnation for an hour, then another, then another, in endless succession, never nearer the end than at the start.

Brilliant picture, and all the more so if it sent (and sends!) one sinner flying to Christ and the Gospel for grace and refuge while it may still be had.

Dan Phillips's signature


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. And it definitely gives one a lot to think about. Especially if they make light of sin. I've been thinking about dead family members who I know never accepted Jesus or His teachings, and it pains me greatly to know that they are now in hell. If I'm not mistaken, I want to say Dan had a similar experience with one of his parents when they died. In a world where even conservative preachings make little of hell, we should be very grateful for this post.

Sammy L said...

In my pre-conversion stage the more i covered up this guilt the more burdensome it became until it so overwhelmed me that there was no option left but to run to the cross.Even after conversion there is a tendency to brush over that guilt but now I am always I am reminded "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us"( 1Jn 9-10). The progress is slow and painful but I am making an inch a day.

DJP said...

You and me both, brother. An inch is a good day.

Jules LaPierre said...

Conviction. A true move of the Holy Spirit.

Jason Dohm said...

I attended a conference last year (don't hate me) where Joel Beeke gave a wonderful message on the preaching of the Puritans. He said that they pressed on their hearers that every person was created by God for His glory, and so every second living for self and unreconciled with God was an utterly sinful second. It helped them to batter down the walls of self-satisfaction erected by those outside of Christ who needed to be convinced of their desperate need to fly to the cross for mercy.

Michael Coughlin said...

Enjoyed the post and the comments. What an excellent depiction.

Anonymous said...

This goes along well with the fact that cultural anthropologists find that practically 100% of 1st century people and 70% of people today were a part of honor-shame cultures. Also, it accords with the fact that "weeping and gnashing of teeth" was an idiom for those who had experienced loss of honor (shaming).

This helps us understand too why we don't find ancient people wondering why the punishment of hell is so irrationally severe, or how Jesus could have suffered long enough on the cross.

Wesley Callihan said...

Lewis's Great Divorce is not an image of hell but of the self deceptions that, unrepented, will lead us there. He probably would have had no argument with what you've written.

DJP said...

Then he didn't write what I object to? In the post? Up at the top, there?