review of “First Doctrine”

clip_image001Reviews are normally shared to notify the interested public of new and potentially important publications, particularly relating to certain fields of interest. One of the unfortunate aspects of that fact is that often some of the more important and relevant works are already published long before the reviewer is born. Also, newer works may not be more helpful than older ones, but they are almost certainly more expensive. Some of the more significant works on a given topic may be freely available to all, having passed into public domain, and available online as free e-books.

In light of that, this reviewer does not apologize for being over a century late in his review of The First Doctrine of the Christian Church by Charles Earl Preston et. al. (Providence, RI: The Young Minister’s Christian Union, 1891). This gem, discovered not in a dusty library, but in a Google search, offers valuable assistance for those who are interested both in the history and the doctrines of conditionalism.

The book is a collection of essays on conditional immortality, regarded as the “first doctrine of the Christian church” because it was the hope presented by the first witnesses of Christ in New Testament times. It was prepared for a convention of the Young Minister’s Christian Union, a clergy conference held (it is presumed) that year. The 19th century had seen a number of religious revivals, including the Adventist movement, which had a major impact on America, particularly in re-sparking interest in eschatology. The YMCU was one of the results of that interest.

In the preface, the publisher expressed thanksgiving for being able to present a work defending conditional immortality to the public. The publisher expressed gratitude that “many who were bound by the subtle influence of the traditional dogma are now rejoicing in the blessed truth of life alone in the Redeemer[1].” That traditional dogma it refers to is the belief in the innate immortality of all human beings. Instead, the gospel teaches that Christ alone brings eternal life.

Nature of God

One of the criticisms that this book implies to the traditional doctrine of hell is that it makes God the author of an eternal evil – a place where a significant number of souls (most of all who have ever lived) will suffer in agony for all eternity. The preface quotes a bishop Newton, who wrote “nothing can be more contrary to the divine nature and attributes, than for a God, all-wise, all powerful, all-good, all=perfect, to bestow existence on any beings whose destiny he foresees and foreknows must terminate in wretchedness and misery, without recovery or remedy, without respite or end.”[2] Some, today, are thinking thoughts like this, and it is leading them back to the ancient concepts of probation and purgatory.

Conditionalism offers another alternative. God’s prescribed wages of sin is eternal death, not unending misery. “Eternal Death is at once an eternal punishment and the everlasting blotting out of evil from the universe of God.”[3] Conditionalism is –first and foremost – a defense of God’s loving nature.

Human Nature

An essay in this work traces two diverging lines of thought in theology, both of which can be traced back to Plato’s philosophical doctrine of the immortal soul. Origen’s concept of eventual restoration of all, and Augustine’s doctrine of eternal conscious torment each find their origin in that pagan concept of the indestructible soul. The suggested solution to the problem agrees with Augustine that future punishment must last forever, and agrees with Origen that evil must be blotted out. That solution is what the Bible calls the second death, an eternal death.[4]

Yet, to insist that fallen human beings have been made immortal makes eternal death impossible. “Fallen man to live forever! Oh! No! That was the Devil’s lie whispered in Eve’s ear in Eden and by her believed to the destruction and death of her children.” Instead Christ taught that those who do not come to him will not have life (John 5:40). Paul taught that immortality is a gift promised believers, not a present possession of all (Romans 2:6-7).[5] God created human beings with a marvelous nature, but immortality is not ours this side of the resurrection.

Life after Death

Even today, we are often told that a conscious life immediately after death is a belief shared by all cultures at all times. But the Bible denies that. Paul said, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, that the Gentiles had no hope of life after death. “While our teachers and preachers are telling us that belief in immortality was universal in the heathen world, Paul who knew that world well, tells us it had no faith in any future life, and no hope beyond the grave.” Justin Martyr and Tertullian said that the heathen believe in “nothing after death.”[6] The concept of natural immortality was devised by pagan philosophy, and adapted syncretistically into Christianity. It had its origin neither in popular belief nor the Bible.

Final Punishment

The ultimate punishment for those who are not saved will be the same punishment Adam was threatened with – “not eternal life in misery, but death.” God will destroy with fire those who will not make it into his eternal kingdom. “It will be an unquenchable fire. Eusebius speaks of unquenchable fire destroying the martyrs. So also in Jeremiah (17:27) we read of such a fire burning the palaces of Jerusalem, though not now burning.”[7] This threat of the final punishment of destruction is what Jesus said people should fear (Matthew 10:28).

The First Doctrine of the Christian Church is not without its flaws. It gets somewhat sidetracked at times, suggesting a bit too strongly that Christ will save many “good” heathens that never knew him. But the book does serve as a good record of 19th century conditionalist thought, and has many good biblical arguments against innate immortality.


Scriptural Index to “The First Doctrine…”

Genesis 1:26-27; 2:17           53 (80)

Genesis 2:15                         60 (87)

Psalm 16:11                           6 (33)

Psalm 21:4                             6 (33)

Psalm 34:10                           4 (31)

Psalm 37:20                           4 (31)

Psalm 145:20                         4 (31)

Isaiah 26:19                           61 (88)

Isaiah 66:24                           5 (32)

Jeremiah 17:27                     4 (31)

Hosea 13:14                          61 (88)

Matthew 10:28                      xii (19), 36 (63)

Luke 16:25                            44 (71)

Luke 20:36                            65 (92)

John 3:16                              3 (30)

John 5:40                              3 (30), 63 (90)

John 6:51                              63 (90)

John 10:27; 11:25                 62 (89)

John 15:22                            44 (71)

Acts 17:30,31                        25 (52)

Romans 2:6-7                        64 (91)

Romans 2:7                           5 (32)

Romans 5:12                         54 (81)

Romans 6:23                         5 (32)

1 Corinthians 15:53-54         5 (32)

1 Thessalonians 4:13            57 (84)

1 Timothy 1:1,10,17             5 (32)

1 Timothy 6:16                     5 (32)

1 Peter 1:3                          66 (93)

1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:1-6        42 (69)

2 Peter 2:6                          4 (31)

1 John 2:17                         3 (30)

1 John 5:11                         3 (30)

Revelation 20:7                  43 (70)


[1] vii (14). [Since this book was scanned into .pdf format, references to page numbers will include the .pdf document page numbers as well. Those numbers will be in parentheses].

[2] ix (16).

[3] 51 (78).

[4] 49-50 (76-77).

[5] 63-64 (90-91).

[6] 58 (85).

[7] 3-4 (30-31).

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