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The influences which, during the last half century, have modified the rigor of the prevailing creeds of Christendom, have not been few nor fleeting. Theology has relaxed its grim features, and tacitly abandoned or put out of sight, one by one, tenets at variance with the advanced intelligence and religious sentiment of the age. The dogma of a divinely arranged atonement arbitrarily embracing a small portion of the human race, and consigning the rest, on account of their doctrinal unbelief, or vices of will, to everlasting perdition, is now rarely urged as an indispensable article of faith.
More harmonious views of the Deity and His dealings, and of the nature of Christ's mission, are becoming general. By many devout Christians it is believed, that, if there is to be punishment in another stage of being, it will be analogous to that which follows sin in this life, and with a remedial, not a vindictive object. By others it is held that Christ's atonement comprehended the entire race of man, and was final and unconditional.
The incompatibility of the old notion of a partial atonement with the present state of culture, moral and religious, among men, and the restlessness which a sense of that incompatibility produces in leading minds, have been evinced in a marked manner of late in the publication of an ingenious work * by one of the foremost champions of the old theology, in which, in order to vindicate the ways of God to man, under the assumptions of that theology, he revives the ancient theory of pre-existent sin, which regards the human race as fallen spirits, to whom in this life an opportunity is afforded of expiating the guilt which they contracted in unknown eras of being. We will not pause upon the difficulties with which this fanciful scheme is crowded.
It is well known that the celebrated and eyangelical John Foster held decided views in opposition to the belief in the eternal duration of future punishment; and, strange as it may appear, his
* The Conflict of Ages, by Edward Beecher, D. D.
standing and influence as an orthodox” Christian and minister were not lost thereby. He writes, as late as 1841, on this subject : “I acknowledge my inability (I would say it reverently) to admit this belief, together with a belief in the Divine goodness, the belief that God is love, that His tender mercies are over all His works.” “What, then," he says, on another occasion, “shall we think of that theology, which represents the men, whom God has made most like Himself, as exult ing for ever and ever in the most dreadful sufferings of the larger part of those who have been their fellow-inhabitants of this world ?" Even Dr. Watts, a portion of whose writings justify us in regarding him as one of the most uncompromising expounders of the theology thus indicated, appears to have ultimately changed his views in regard to its most repulsive article. John Foster speaks of himself as being " in the same parallel of latitude with respect to orthodoxy as the revered Dr. Watts in the late maturity of his thoughts.'
Some moralists have contended that nothing less than the fear of endless woe hereafter will deter men from sin in this life. But the piety induced and sustained by such a motive can have little of saving grace in its composition; and it may well be doubted whether such derogatory notions of the