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GOD FORBID: FOR THEN HOW SHALL GOD JUDGE THE WORLD?
THE simplest truths of religion are also the deepest and most inexhaustible. They are everywhere around us, like the air which we breathe, and yet we are hardly conscious of their presence. They seem to grow up in us naturally by the light of reason and conscience; they are the established beliefs of the age or country in which we live. All men are agreed in holding them, and there is nothing new to be said about them.
They may be summed up in two or three propositions which nobody would deny, as for example: God is just; God is true; He governs the world by fixed rule; He is the Author of our being; He knows and sees all things. And yet these simple propositions seem to be always in danger of being lost. They become truisms or commonplace. They are laid on the shelf, and exercise no great influence over life. 39The most trifling controversy of the day has a deeper interest for us than the great question of all religion, the nature and character of God. Few persons have ever seriously inquired into the evidence supplied by their own nature, and by the course of the world, of the manner of God’s dealings with them. And while holding the beliefs of the divine perfection in a lazy, unmeaning way, they have allowed all sorts of other beliefs to spring up in their minds which are practically inconsistent with this. They have not said: ‘No that is impossible, because it contradicts the divine justice or the divine goodness’; ‘That is impossible, because it contradicts the divine truth’; or, in the impetuous language of the Apostle, ‘Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar’; or, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ These are the tests to which all systems of theology must at last be brought, the human, or rather the divine, ideas of truth and right and goodness and love.
I purpose to speak in this sermon of our simplest conceptions of the divine nature. And first I shall consider what these are, and how far they can be said to accord with our experience of the world; and secondly I shall show how the primary conceptions of God have been violated, not only in the religions of the Gentiles, but in many ideas of the divine nature which have been held by Christian teachers. And thirdly I shall point out how to these we return as the final result of all our 40knowledge of divine things, and that they are the fixed principles or anchors of the soul which hold us fast amid the waves of time in life and death.
As I have already remarked, there would be no great difference about the language in which we should describe the Divine Being. We should use words derived from human goodness, because we have no other. But while we should admit that they are applied to God in a transcendent sense, transferred from the finite to the infinite, we should insist that they have essentially the same meaning in both uses of them. For example, when we say that God is just, we do not mean to attribute to Him a quality which is the reverse of human justice, but only more perfect, such as is proper to One who knows all the circumstances of every case, and has therefore a sort of infinite equity in dealing with them. When we ascribe any of these epithets to God, we mean to affirm that at any rate He does not fall short of the quality denoted by them in the ordinary human sense of the words. There is no standard to which we can refer the nature of God but our own moral ideas, and if we cast a doubt upon these then we are altogether at sea.
Under the name of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ we are worshipping an unknown God, of whom we catch occasional glimpses flashing through the mists and storms which envelop Him. There is a question which the ancient philosophers were fond of raising—Whether there was one virtue or many? 41 They meant to ask whether all the different virtues were derived from a single principle. So we might ask whether there is one attribute of God or many, and we might sum up all in one word—divine perfection. If we were further to analyse this we should attribute to Him, first, knowledge and power, which seem to be different aspects of the same quality, for to know all things is to be able to do them; secondly, we should attribute to Him truth and justice, which are similarly connected, for truth is the foundation of justice; thirdly, we should attribute to Him goodness—not that easy-going temper or character which sometimes passes under this name among men, but the everlasting purpose that all His creatures should be good even as He is good. Though He might judge them and punish them in this life or another (and this might be the effect of the fixed laws by which He governs the world), yet we should feel confident of His having provided that His banished ones be not expelled from Him. We should not doubt that He who had the power would also have the will to restore men to Himself; or, as the Apostle says: ‘So then God concluded all men under sin that He might have mercy upon all.’
The mediæval saints would have spoken of what they termed ‘the enjoyment of God.’ And certainly there is great comfort in the thought of a divine perfection—to the good when they are overpowered by the evil of the world; to the evil, too, as soon as 42they feel any desire to cast aside the burden of sin, and become conscious of One who wills that they shall be saved. The thought of this perfection might kindle raptures in our minds such as find utterance in the hymns of the Psalmist: ‘I will love Thee, O Lord my strength; I will praise Thee with my whole heart’; or might create in us such a sense of confidence and truth as is expressed in the words: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’; or in that yet deeper strain which is heard in Psalm xc: ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation; before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were formed, Thou art God from everlasting to everlasting’; or might give us such a sense of peace as is expressed in those pathetic words of Psalm xxiii: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.’ This is the language which the Psalmist uses in all the circumstances of his life; he feels that God is ever present with him; and in all the higher and nobler thoughts which pass his mind he recognizes a divine inspiration. But this is not the language of our hearts; we have not this same joyous confidence in God; at least there are few persons who would be able to find in these words the natural expression of their feelings, partly because we interpose His laws between ourselves and Him, and seem to imagine that He is being hidden from us when He is really being 43revealed to us. With how much wider knowledge, with how much deeper feeling, can the modern astronomer look up at the stars and say, ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man that Thou art mindful of him?’ We have given up the notion of the human personality of God, and we have not yet mastered this other conception of a personality clothed in laws.
But there is another reason which lies deeper still. For the truth is that our minds are partly clouded by a doubt—the same doubt which pressed upon the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes—the existence of evil in the world. How is this divine perfection reconcilable with the misery of our poor, with the vice of our criminals, with the disease and death which we see everywhere around us, with the crushing misfortunes which sometimes oppress the good, with the tendencies to evil or with the actual evil which we find in our hearts? That is the difficulty which is pressed upon us, and which some persons use as an argument to make us believe everything; which others adduce as a reason why we should believe nothing. Men will often advance the most monstrous doctrines respecting the character and actions of God. And, when reason and nature alike seem to rebel against some of these statements, they reply, ‘How do you account for the existence of evil?’ Here is a difficulty which cannot be lightly set aside either in speculation or in practice: 44whether a man thinks or feels, there is a dead weight hanging about his neck, darkening his life, which needs to be removed. Is our conception of God to be formed according to that image which exists within us, or to be derived from our experience of evil in the world? That is the question. My brethren, this is an old difficulty which is not now broached for the first time, and to which we cannot expect to have a full answer in this life, because the purposes of God towards us are only revealed in part. But, though unable to wholly remove the difficulty, I think that we may see the direction in which the answer is to be sought. For, first of all, we have no business to say that God either causes or permits evil, but only that He governs the world by fixed laws, within the limits of which good and evil display themselves. He has made the world to be a sort of theatre in which men act their parts. If you say that individuals are sacrificed to the working of these laws, are you not thinking too much of this life only, and not conscious that there may be other states of being in which the meanest creatures here—the cripple, the pauper, the criminal—may have another chance given them, and strike for another goal, and the last become first and the first perhaps last.
Believing in the existence of God, and comparing our own happier lot with that of the poor and suffering whom we see around us, we cannot justify the ways of God to man without maintaining that there is more 45than appears; and for that reason, as well as for other reasons, we look forward to a future life. But, secondly, we feel that good is inseparable from evil, and that we can form no distinct conception of the one apart from the other. Both seem to flow equally from the free agency of man, and if we were to deny the existence of evil we should be compelled to deny the existence of good. This shows us that we must not be too certain of our own ideas on this subject, and that some part of the difficulty is due to the use of a word. For if, instead of speaking of the existence of evil in the world, we spoke rather of degrees of perfection or of degrees of imperfection (and what do we mean by evil more than this?), that part of terror which is due to the influence of language would be removed. Logic would no longer be able to stand over us like a hard taskmaster asserting the omni potence of God, and the existence of evil, and requiring us to draw the conclusion.
But still, I admit that evil under whatever name is a reality which cannot be got rid of by any new use of language. And, though I am afraid of seeming to carry you too far away from home, there is another consideration to which I should wish to draw your attention. It is not the mere existence of evil, but the amount of evil in the world which really depresses us and seems like a load too heavy to be lifted up. And if we could realize to ourselves that the purposes of God are known to us in part only, not merely as 46regards another life, but also as regards this; if we could imagine that the evil and disorder which we see around us is but a step or stage in the progress towards order and perfection, then our conception of evil would be greatly changed. Geology tells us of remote ages in which animals wandered over the earth when as yet man ‘was not,’ and of ages longer and more distant still in which there was no breath or movement of living creature on land or sea. So slowly, and by so many steps, did the earth which we inhabit attain to the fulness of life which we see around us. And I might go on to speak of this world as a pebble in the ocean of space, as no more in relation to the universe than the least things are to the greatest, or to the whole earth. But, that we may not become dizzy in thinking about this, I will ask you to consider the bearing of such reflections, which are simple matters of fact, on our present subject. They tend to show us how small a part, not only of the physical, but also of the moral world, is really known to us. They suggest to us that the evil and suffering which we see around us may be only the beginning of another and higher state of being, to be realized during countless ages in the history of man. That progress of which we think so much, from barbarism to civilization, or from ancient to modern times, may be as nothing compared with that which God has destined for the human race. And if we were living in those happier times, we 47should no more think seriously of the misery through which many have attained to that higher state of being than we should think of some bad dream, or dwell on some aberration or perversity of childhood when the character had been formed and had grown up to the stature of the perfect man.
Well, but some one will say, I would rather not be deluded with the prospect of an indefinite future, ten, or twenty, or thirty thousand years hence, when I see and feel wretchedness at my very door, and in my own home, when at this hour during which we are here assembled there are thousands of suffering, hopeless beings to whom life is a burden. How will the millennium of which you speak profit them? I will not repeat what I have said before, that this world would be the most unjust of worlds if there were no other; but there is another reflection which is nearer than that. The evil, the misery, the moral and physical degradation you, who are so much moved at the spectacle, have the power of mitigating, of relieving, of preventing. This millennium, which is so far off, may be brought by you into your own neighbour hood; there may be a kingdom of heaven in a parish at the present hour, as well as in some remote age or another. From you may flow an inspiration of goodness; a breath from another land which may drive away the pestilence. For God has not left us in this world helpless to contend against the power of evil, but has also endowed us with the capacity of resisting 48evil, and of removing the circumstances out of which evil grows. And do not let us say, How can we get rid of the difficulty of the existence of the evil? but, How can we get rid of evil? How can we fulfil that purpose with a view to which God has allowed evil to exist? This is the best speculative answer to the difficulty, namely, that we can remove evil; and the best practical answer—for, when we are most actively engaged in doing good to others, then we most strongly feel that the sad experience of evil in the world is really reconcilable with that other image of the divine nature which is presented to us by reason and conscience.
It seems to be a harder task to think of God now than formerly, because we can no longer think of Him as the God of our Church or nation, but of the whole earth, nor of the earth merely, but of myriads of worlds. Yet in all ages, the ages of credulity or faith as well as those of reason and inquiry, the minds of men have been struggling after God if haply they might find Him. The ancient Greek thought that he saw God, first in the likeness of man, not better but greater than himself; then as fate, then as mind; whose providential interference was introduced to meet a difficulty, and who was not so much the just governor of men as the occasional avenger of injustice. Then there came the philosopher who taught that God was good, and the Author of good; that He was true, and could have no occasion to 49deceive. Yet even he had no conception of a God who was the God of all nations of the earth. Slowly and partially in the decline of Roman and Greek life, when the different streams of human thought were beginning to meet and mingle, the wiser part of the Gentile world became dimly conscious that God was not the God of the Greeks and Romans, but of all mankind.
Even in the Scriptures too, if we read them attentively, we shall find a similar progressive revelation of the divine nature. In the childhood of the world God walked in the garden and talked with Adam. But in the New Testament we are plainly told that no man hath seen God at any time. In the Book of Exodus we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and in the Book of Genesis that He tempted Abraham; but again in the New Testament that He tempteth no man. And once more in the Old Testament itself we find both the earlier and the later notion. First He visited the sins of the fathers upon the children; secondly, in the prophets there occurs the twice repeated contradiction of this. Henceforth there should be no more this proverb in the house of Israel, ‘the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’; but every soul should bear his own iniquity. And our Lord Himself twice rebuked the popular superstition that temporal calamities are the punishment of sin: first, in the words, ‘Think ye that those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam 50fell were sinners above all the dwellers in Jerusalem?’ and again, in the case of the man born blind, when the question is asked Him, ‘Master, which did sin, this man or his parents?’
Slowly and gradually, whether with or without Jewish or Christian revelation, have men attained to that degree of clearness of insight into the ways of God of which the human mind seems capable. And again and again they have held the truth in inconsistency, and in the name of Christianity relapsed into Jewish and Gentile error. They have not placed before themselves the attributes of God as the conditions under which they must think of His dealings with man. How, for example, when we speak of God as true, can we imagine that He will see us other than we truly are, or interpose a fiction between Himself and us? Or how can we suppose that He who is a Spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth, will make our eternal salvation dependent on some accident of place or time, or the performance of some external act? Or how can a just God punish us for what we never did, for what another did, for the mere tendency to evil which is inherent in the nature which He has given us? How can the most sorrowful spectacle that ever was seen upon earth, at which in a figure we may say that the world has been mourning ever since, have given Him pleasure and satisfaction? Will He remedy one injustice by another? Or again, can He inflict a disproportionate punishment on any 51of His creatures? The good of society, the improvement of the offender, are the purposes of human punishment. Shall we attribute to the Most Merciful a darker purpose, of which we hardly venture to think or speak? Or shall we not rather thankfully acknowledge that His plans for the improvement of mankind are more perfect, more continuous, than our human schemes of discipline?
The changes which have already taken place in the religious belief of Christians incline us to argue that there will be other changes by which religion and morality may be more perfectly reconciled. Many dark clouds of error and superstition hang about the early ages of the Church, and some of these are hanging about us still; many opinions were held by the best of men in the Nicene Church from which the human mind now shrinks with horror and amazement. Who can believe that the unbaptized infant is consigned to everlasting torments? Yet this was once the orthodox faith of the Christian world. Who can hear without trembling that one mortal sin consciously committed after baptism, almost, if not altogether, excluded the sinner from the hope of salvation? No wonder that men put off baptism until the hour of death. But what a conception both of the nature of God and of the religion of Christ does such a practice imply. Or who is not surprised when he reads that the satisfaction of Christ for the sins of mankind was originally understood to be a satisfaction to the devil, 52and not to God? And, strangest of all, perhaps the least error in the use of a word seems to have been thought more displeasing to God than the greatest perfidy or cruelty of emperors, or the corruption of cities and churches.
In the ancient Abyssinian Church, which by some has been thought to have retained the primitive faith more than any other, there was a solemn form of words repeated on certain days of the year. The origin of the custom and the name of the author of the words were unknown; they were supposed by some to have been translated out of another language. The meaning of several of the terms employed in this ancient document was uncertain; and texts were quoted from the Abyssinian Scriptures in support of them which were not found in older and better copies. Nevertheless, the use of this form of words, admitted to be of such uncertain interpretation and authority, was guarded by the most tremendous anathemas, which were uttered by the whole people; and all who did not believe what they could not wholly understand were devoted by them to eternal damnation. And sometimes the anathemas were rolled forth in a sort of triumph to the pealing sound of the organ, and sometimes the innocent voice of a child might be heard gently repeating them. The patriarch of the Abyssinian Church had long wished to put an end to this scandal, for he acknowledged that the words were not to be taken in their natural sense. But 53ecclesiastical customs are very tenacious, and are apt to continue long after they are disapproved by reason and conscience.
My brethren, I want to point out to you that, if we insist on retaining all that we have received from antiquity, we must insensibly impair the divine image in the soul. Religion and morality will part company more and more; and we shall either cease to believe in God and a future life at all, or we shall become the victims of every superstition; we cannot draw near to Him if we think of Him only as a being who watches over us in this world, but leaves us to our fate in another.
I am aware that some persons may be displeased with me for saying this. But they would be equally displeased if I were to describe to them the terrors of hell in the language of Tertullian or some other ancient father, or as they are depicted in the writings of that Spanish friar which some of us may have read translated in the works of Bishop Jeremy Taylor. And still more, and more justly, would they be displeased if I was to apply their own doctrine to some one near and dear to them who had led a careless life and died making no sign of repentance. Yet surely it is a dangerous thing to hold religious truth at a distance which we refuse to realize when brought home to us; to begin by violating our first notions of the attributes of God on some slender ground of tradition or doubtful interpretation of isolated texts of Scripture, and 54then, as if such doctrines were too dreadful to be entertained, seriously to lay them aside when they begin to be applied to practice.
For indeed the thought of God is awful enough to us without adding terrific and unmeaning consequences. We do not suppose that God is like some foolish father who lets off his children from the punishment which is for their improvement—but rather that ‘whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.’ We know that the will and purpose of God is that we should become like Him; that we should put off the garment of self and put on the Lord Jesus Christ in righteousness and true holiness. Nor can we imagine or believe that this is to be accomplished except by the exertions of our own wills co-operating with His will. And, when we think of our own selfishness, of our absorption in the things of this world and our averseness to another, we feel that this is a great and protracted work which cannot be accomplished without many a struggle and many sharp pangs, which might be described in Scripture language as dividing the body from the spirit, us from ourselves. For, whether we speak of a state of probation in which mankind or the majority of them are to have one chance and then to be cast aside for ever, or of an education which is to begin here and to be carried on through countless ages (and there may be those who are saved, so as by fire), yet we are all agreed in this, that ‘without holiness no man shall see 55the Lord.’ The impure must become pure, the untrue must become simple and true, the thought of God must take the place of the thought of self, there must be no more hatred or party spirit: that ‘last infirmity of religious minds’ must disappear, the tangle of our own character must be unwoven and woven again before we can appear in His presence.
When we think of another life, which is the second great truth of religion, in the light of the attributes of God, we have a feeling of awe and also of comfort. We know that God will see us as we truly are, and that in our way we are not too fit to meet His searching eye. But we know also that He will take into account all the circumstances of our lives. We are conscious that He is infinitely above us, and that no thought of ours can comprehend Him. But, as we would rather be judged by a great and good man than by one of a meaner sort, we would rather fall, as was said of old, into the hands of God than man. We know too that a perfect God can have no other aim or purpose to accomplish but the perfection of His creatures, if this be possible. The systems of men do not terrify us, or their wild denunciations of one another, whether in this or in former ages; they scarcely last a thousand years, and we know that in them is not always to be found the mind of Christ. And we can rise above them into the clear atmosphere of the justice and goodness of God. But what must strike, I do not say with fear, but with awe, the mind 56of any reflecting being is this, that in that other world of which we know so little we have no one on whom we can rely but God only. Let us sometimes be alone with Him in this world, for the time will come when we shall be alone with Him.57
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