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THERE will be so much occasion for the reader's candour throughout the following performance, that it would be imprudent to offend him by omitting any usual instance of civility. It is however of little consequence to the public, to be told how I came to be engaged in this dispute ; only it may be said, that this inquiry should either have been published sooner, or not at all: sooner, that it might have obviated the ill effects of Mr. Whiston's book; or not at all now, since he has been answered by others, and particularly by Mr. Dodwell, in two excellent Discourses before the University of Oxford.
I love no disguise in any case, in this I need none; the plain truth is this :-Mr. Whiston's book had been published a considerable time before I was desired to write against it; when I had undertaken this task, I finished it as soon as I was able, and as fast as other business and avocations would give me leave. And though this Treatise comes late, yet if I have in any measure compassed my design, and confirmed the point I defend, I flatter myself that it may still be useful. While opinions are confined to books, they are of little consequence to the world in
general; and it is to little purpose to raise or continue disputes about them. But the doctrine here opposed is of another kind: it is so agreeable to the wishes and inclinations of some people, that they are ready to believe it, not only independently of Mr. Whiston's book, but perhaps without any reasoning, or reading, upon the subject at all. It is enough for them to hear that a learned man has writ something against the eternity of hell torments. The rest they take for granted; they question not but it must be so as he says; for the doctrine of a miserable eternity always seemed to them absurd and incredible.
There is little hope of prevailing upon such persons as these, to read any thing on the other side. But then they may hear, as they did in the other case, that the point is far from being so clear and certain as they seem to imagine ;—that it still appears to be the doctrine of the New Testament, that there will be no alteration of the state of wicked men after the day of judgment;—that annihilation is a dream, and the hypothesis of a reestablishment more visionary and extravagant than that ;—that therefore they should not so hastily take for granted what has never yet been proved; nor talk and act as if hell torments were not perpetual, till they are very sure that they are in the right. . In a word, if the following inquiry can contribute to make men a little more cautious upon this article, and to reflect on what they are doing before it be too late, it will do good service to the world ; and then the affair of its appearing so long after the book that occasioned it will be merely an incident not worth regarding.
As to the other question,–What need of this after Mr. Dodwell's Discourses? I answer, that it was finished before his Discourses were published ; and as it likewise takes in a larger compass than the nature of that gentleman's design would admit of, it was judged proper not to suppress it. I mention this, lest I should be suspected of vanity, as if I thought myself capable of improving an argument which had been handled by so good a writer; an imagination of all others the furthest from my thoughts.
As to the work itself, I can only say this, that, however imperfect the performance may be, I have taken the right method to find out the truth. I have endeavoured to collect the doctrine of the New Testament, I think, from all the texts in it relating to the argument I am upon; and I have attempted to clear this doctrine from the difficulties objected to it, in point of reason ; with what success, the public only must judge. But surely, if our doctrine must be rejected, it will not be in consequence of what Mr. Whiston has said against it. There is little reasoning in that gentleman's book ;-some scripture explained as he pleases, and sometimes in
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However, as Mr. Whiston had endeavoured to support his cause by authorities, I thought it not proper to leave mine wholly destitute of the same advantage. For this reason I willingly quoted such passages as I met with, either in ancient or modern writers of note and eminency, that were serviceable to my purpose. But it is needless perhaps to make any apology for these quotations : they are possibly
a Thus, for instance, rather than give the plain and full sense of his authors, he will translate them into something little less than contradiction. Page 65, we find Polycarp speaking of that fire which is lasting, and never (undénote) to be quenched. Why then is not alávny rendered everlasting? So again, p. 70, he makes the author of the Recognitions talk of the punishments of lasting fire, (N. B.) without end.