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IMMORTALITY2121Preached at Balliol, 1869..


1 JOHN iii. 2.

THERE are some parts of religion which we are unable to verify by experience, and which seem to be on the uttermost limits of human knowledge. The deepest thoughts in the soul of a man are often those which he can neither define nor express. And some times we put them away from us lest they should disturb the balance of our lives, or we speak of them in reserved and conventional formulas, or we describe them in figures of speech or texts of Scripture which convey no meaning to our minds, or we allow imagination to wander and attribute a sort of inspiration to every feeling and fancy which plays around them, as matters long settled, proved by a thousand arguments, and laid upon the shelf, but not to be taken down or reconsidered.

In this way some of the first truths of religion, and especially the two greatest of all, the nature of God 318and the faith in immortality, pass out of sight and are in process of being lost. Some present interest of controversy, some question of Church politics which is a thousand miles and a thousand years away from them, takes the place of them in our minds. The proportions of religious truth are inverted; the transient phase of opinion is all-absorbing for a time. But at the approach of death, or in any great crisis of our lives, we return to first principles; then we want to have our faith confirmed about one or two important matters. If we are to live again in another state of being, if those who are taken from us are still alive in some other place or manner, we must think about these things. Though ‘we see through a glass darkly,’ though we know in part only, we cannot help asking ourselves what the apostle meant by the words, ‘It doth not yet appear what we shall be,’ and what we mean by repeating them.

Teachers of religion have often spoken of the resurrection under imagery derived from external nature. The various transformations of the vegetable or animal world, the birth of creatures, the chrysalis that opens and spreads its wings in the sunlight, the seed that is not quickened except it die, the sudden burst of all nature into life in every recurring Spring, have often been used both as symbols and evidences of that greater change which, as we believe, will one day pass over us all. Regarded as figures of speech they have their use; and yet we must not press them 319or argue from them, or we shall lay ourselves open to the objection that the sensible evidence of renewal of life which is present in the one case is wanting in the other, and that we do not see the difference between them. But, like other figures of speech, they clothe our thoughts; they teach us to realize what otherwise would be vague and abstract to us. Ideas of an invisible world must be rendered by earthly images; there is no tongue of angels in which they can be expressed. The wonders of nature may lead us to suspect that even in the visible world there is more than we know or can conceive. There are many hidden secrets there too, about the beginning or end of the world and of the human race; about the causes of life and death, which have not yet been, and perhaps never will be, unlocked. But this is not the foundation on which our hope of immortality reposes; and we must not be altogether surprised or shocked if some one points out that in this, as in so many other theological questions, what we mistook for argument was really an illustration.

There is another way in which mankind have been naturally led to think of another life—through the influence of their own circumstances—‘I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.’ The spirits and forms of the dead seem to hover around us and to be about our bed and about our path, sometimes for a shorter, sometimes for a longer period, after they have been taken from us. Their kindness, their loveliness, 320their pleasant ways still encircle us; we seem as if we should never see the like of them again on earth. The staff of life, or the comfort of life, or the light of life has been taken from us, and we are left to finish the journey in cold and solitude. And we have heard of those whom the loss of a mother or a friend has won over to the belief in immortality. These are not merely Christian feelings, they are natural to man. The ancient Greek had the same aches and pains about his departed ones. The worship of ancestry is one of the oldest and most universal parts of religion; and many books have been written to prove that ‘we shall see and know our friends in heaven,’ and that those ties will be renewed in another world which have formed the best part of our lives in this. But, if we reflect, we shall see that it is a train of thought which we cannot trust ourselves to pursue; our sorrows will not allow us to be impartial about those whom we love. There is a better comfort and a deeper truth in the answer of Christ to the shrewd question of the Sadducees—‘In the Resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven’: for the dead are ever fading out of sight; for a few weeks or months, or perhaps years, they may be very near to us, and after a time we feel their loss in a less degree, not from any loss of constancy on our parts, but because this is the appointed order of God and the nature of our minds. Beyond the last generation, or the one before, we 321hardly know them; their names are venerated on tomb stones, and that is almost all. And yet it is a strange thought that they who are so little to us now, though bound to us by ties of blood, had affections and interests and sorrows and joys as strong and vivid as we now have. They are at a fixed point in the far distance from us, while we are floating further and further away from them down the stream of time. We cannot, even in thought, reconstruct the relationship which once subsisted. There are a few, perhaps, in that innumerable company who still detain our longing eyes; whose voice, whose look, whose character, remains with us to our life’s end; and who, if after a long absence they could revisit the earth, like friends returning from India or some distant land, would find themselves not forgotten in the hurry of the world; and we should welcome them to the accustomed place which had always been vacant for them. But this is not the way in which we commonly regard the souls of the departed: we leave them in the hands of God, who is able to take care of them, who is as near to them as He is to us, who is their Father and our Father, and their God and our God.

Nor, again, should I be disposed to rest the belief in immortality on any past fact, once happening in the course of the world’s history, for this reason: Some one may point out to me that all past events necessarily rest on testimony; he may show me discrepancies in the narrative of the event; he may ask whether we 322refuse to apply to our narrative the same principles of evidence which are applied to another. Can I venture to answer him by appealing to authority, still less by denying to him the name of Christian? And I think that we have a strong and just feeling that the first truths of religion cannot be rocking to and fro with successive schools of criticism, and that whatever does rock to and fro in this way is not a first truth of religion. We cannot suppose that anything important in human life is really affected by the date or mode of composition of a book, except in so far as our mistaken opinion has made it so.

And the same persons may go on to ask, ‘Why should we trust to the lower sort of arguments, against which historical criticism and physical science in their present stage seem to combine, when we have other and higher ones? Why should we depend on evidences which are external, and have no connexion with our moral nature, which cannot be the same to all persons and in all ages and countries (for the uneducated, and in the East I may say whole nations, cannot understand the nature of historical evidence), when we have a truer and deeper witness, and nearer home, in our own reason and conscience?

Leaving, then, such associations and figures of speech, as only accidentally connected with our faith in immortality, let us consider the subject anew; first, in reference to the nature of God; secondly, in relation to ourselves; thirdly, in relation to our fellow-men.


1. We cannot think of immortality and not at the same time think of a Supreme Being; without Him we are like children cast forth to swim upon an illimitable ocean. Our strongest reason for believing in another life is our conviction that He is, and that He is perfectly just and true and good and wise. This is not a discovery of our own, revealed to us by any peculiar kind of light, but a truth common to all men, which almost all religions in all ages have been striving after, and which Christ our Lord came to teach us more clearly; to which the human race seems to be tending, with greater difficulties indeed from the very extent of the conception, and yet on deeper grounds, as the thoughts of men widen with the process of the suns. It is a truth towards which the world is growing amid some appearances to the contrary, under many names and in many forms, by revelation, without revelation; through Scripture, through nature, as order begins to appear out of disorder, as the mass of mankind become more agreed about the essentials of religion, as religion begins to be more and more identified with morality and morality with religion, as all nations acknowledge more and more that they are of one brotherhood and kindred.

But, if we believe in a perfect God, we must believe that He wills all His creatures to participate in that perfection which He Himself is. He is the centre and we the outskirts of His kingdom, which He, like the 324sun, is beginning to illuminate until the whole is light. The appearances of this world puzzle us, and some times lead us to ask what is the meaning of all this—not light but rather darkness visible—in which truth and error, good and evil, are at war with one another, or more often are inextricably intertwined. For we see good which never comes to anything, germs and seeds which never ripen; there appears to be such a waste, not only of vegetable and animal natures, but also of human and rational souls, upon the earth. One person is taken from us just as he is beginning to accomplish some great end, another whose life is so necessary to his family, to the State, or to the Church. There is so little again of any perfect growth of character among us which is attained in the short period of three score years and ten: the experience of life is hardly gained when life comes to an end. The physical laws of the world seem to proceed in regular order, but the moral laws are only beginning to be developed; the whole course of the world appears to be a sort of education, leading up to that state of life and knowledge, still very imperfect, in which we find ourselves. But then can we really suppose that all these countless myriads who have gone down into silence were created only for our sake, that we might make a few steps onward in the march of human progress? That would be like supposing that the fixed stars were only created to give light to one of the satellites of the sun. Or do 325we imagine that we ourselves are mere stepping-stones on which future ages are to be built up?

The answer is that we know in part, and that the purposes of God towards mankind are as yet only half revealed, or, in the Apostle’s language, ‘Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.’ We see the beginning, but not the end; neither can we form any adequate conception of the manner in which the divine nature works. Nothing in this world would lead us to suppose that perfection would be a sudden or random result; and, if proceeding only in due course and order, then degrees of perfection necessarily imply also degrees of imperfection. But, if God is perfect, all these beginnings of things which we see around us are one day to be completed. As our Saviour says, ‘The hairs of your head are all numbered,’ and, ‘Not one sparrow falleth to the ground but your heavenly Father knoweth it.’ We may repeat after Him, ‘Not one human soul in the most remote ages, in the most distant countries, which He has not still in His hands.’ Not only the great men of past ages, who are sometimes said metaphorically to have an immortality of fame, still live; but the meanest, the weakest, the poorest, and those who were of no account in this world, are still alive, fulfilling the work which He called them into existence to perform. This is involved in any conception of God which represents Him as a moral being at all; and to deny any part of this is to deny His moral 326nature. For God has not allowed the sense of justice to grow up in us, or prescribed this to be the rule of our lives, that He should Himself violate His own law when dealing with His creatures on a larger scale; that justice should be administered in courts of law in the world, and consecrated in the opinions of men, and in the great conclusion of all things be finally lost sight of.

And, as our belief in another life is chiefly founded on our belief in the existence of God, so our conception of the nature of that state is derived from our conception of the divine. The Apostle says that ‘when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.’ This is that necessary use of metaphors of which I was speaking; for we know that in outward form we cannot be like Him, who has no form. But to be like Him is to be just as He is just, to be true as He is true, to be loving as He is, to know His will perfectly and to have no other will; to become a sort of universal nature, if I may use such a phrase, which has no touch of interest or selfishness, but in everything regards others equally with self. This is the highest form in which we can conceive of another life, and is also the pattern or ideal we place before ourselves in this—not to be always thinking about God, for that may overstrain human faculties, and may sometimes lend a fire to the evil that is in us as well as to the good; but to be seeking to frame our lives in His image, that we may bear in some degree 327on earth the likeness which we hope to bear in heaven.

This or something like this is the idea which we are able to form of another state of being in which we shall do the will of God perfectly, and of which we see a trace or reflection in the lives of very few individuals in this world. We know very well, as I was saying at first, that these thoughts when put into words seem poor and meagre; they do not fill our minds with pleasant pictures, or strew the garden of the soul with flowers of paradise. The only way in which we can realize them is to live in them, to waken in ourselves the sense of a divine power which is the embodiment of justice and truth and love, and to think of this power as equally the Lord of this life and another. For as another life is inseparably connected with God, it is inseparably connected with this life also; and He is the source from which they are both derived, and the centre in which they meet.

And, as we speak or think of a perfect state of life in which we shall be one with God and God with us, so, guided by the same consideration of the divine attributes, we may also think of imperfect states of being—states of discipline and education, of struggle and suffering, in which we are gradually prepared to receive a higher nature; for most of us cannot think ourselves worthy of eternal happiness, and as little, perhaps, deserving of eternal misery. We see all sorts of degrees of good and evil among men, and an 328infinite variety of circumstances and opportunities and we cannot suppose that, irrespective of differences of circumstances or degrees of good and evil, another world is divided by a hard and fast line into two classes only. Natural justice seems to revolt at this; we cannot attribute to God a rule of judgement which would seem very imperfect and mistaken and ludicrous in man. We know indeed that many vain speculations have been entertained respecting an intermediate state, which have fascinated men’s minds, and drawn them off from the simpler and greater truths of religion; and that doctrines of purgatory and masses for the dead have corrupted the Gospel of Christ, and been dangerous to morality and society. But what is not idle conjecture, nor yet dangerous to morality and society, but rather the foundation of them, is the belief that God will deal with us as we are, not as we appear to ourselves or others, by the rule of justice, estimating our individual characters and lives according to their circumstances, not roughly generalizing as men might do; and that this justice will still be like the justice of a father to his children, subject to that love whereby He is wishing to draw all things to Himself.

I have been speaking of a future state as immediately connected with our belief in God. This must always be the chief ground of our confidence in an invisible world. If we cannot believe that all live unto Him in this world, we shall have a doubtful and precarious hope of an existence beyond the grave.


2. There are two other aspects of the subject, however, which I was going to mention—our own experience, and the contemplation of our fellow-men.

The best things in life speak to us of immortality. The best thoughts of our hearts, the best persons whom we have known, especially among the poor, the struggle against evil, the aspiration after good, the disinterested desire to live above the world, to devote ourselves to others, to know more about the truth and about God, to be like Christ—these are a sort of forecast of a life to come. It is hardly possible to see how these things could continue if there were no hopes of another state of being. Human nature would lose faith so entirely, and would settle down, if we die as the brutes, into living like the brutes. I do not mean that we should feel ourselves cheated of a reward, for the more a man is absorbed in the performance of duty the more the idea of reward takes the form of a more perfect performance of his duty. But we should feel ourselves so deeply discouraged, so broken hearted, if there were no truth better than the truth of this world, no justice higher than this justice, no love purer than the love of this world, no higher state of being to which we might look forward, if all is illusion and we are really the playthings of nature and chance. If we were once convinced of this, then we should feel that we had better not live. For our highest thoughts would only seem to mock us with the bitterness of death. A great poet, who was also a philosopher, has 330argued, not from the Christian’s point of view but from the nature of things, ‘that he who has an adequate conception of the world as a whole must have a conception of God.’ In a like strain of reflection it might be said ‘that he who has an adequate conception of the depth of human nature must have also a faith in immortality.’ For the greatest thoughts of men carry them beyond this world; if confined to earth they are spoiled and stunted. The willingness to die for others, the indifference to the opinion of mankind, the love of truth for its own sake, the perfect disinterestedness—these are some of the qualities, though seen in a very few, which awaken and confirm our sense of the immortality of man.

But there is another voice within us which tells us not to lose faith in the goodness of God or in the order of the world, for that these are the things of which we are most certain, and of which we have the evidence in ourselves. ‘If a man have the will to do the works he shall know of the doctrine.’ The better a man becomes, the less he has of doubt and fear, the more he is at peace with himself, the more he is convinced of the final victory of good in the world, the more willing he is, when his time comes, to surrender himself into the hands of God. There may be a reason for scepticism when a man is leading a careless, sensual, self-delusive life; then the higher sort of things become obliterated in his mind, and he is willing to take his chance. But when a man is day by day and 331year by year trying to do his duty better, to know more of the truth, to carry on the work of God in the world more perfectly, in the conquest of evil, in the aspiration after good, just in proportion as he is free from every human and earthly influence he will feel more assured that he is not deceiving himself, and that God is not deceiving him.

3. But, once more, there is another point of view from which we realize a future life, the contemplation of our fellow-men. It is a rational and right feeling that we and such as we, who are met here together this day, have many undeserved blessings—good food and clothing, good health (at least most of us have), a good position in life, the greatest of God’s gifts, education; a bright prospect of happiness and usefulness, if we take the means to them. It is natural that we should think of these things, sometimes asking ourselves that question of Scripture, ‘Who made thee to differ from another?’ But what of others who have not these, who are friendless and poor and have passed their lives in misery; and some who have had no opportunity of extricating themselves from vice and degradation, to whom it is a mere mockery to say that this life is a state of probation, for they have been predestined from their birth to pauperism and crime? Would not this world be the most unjust of worlds if all is over with them? Go into the wards of a hospital in which men and women are lying ill of incurable diseases, or into the cells of a prison, or into a lunatic 332asylum, or only into the meaner suburbs of some great city, and see there the worn, emaciated, distracted faces of those with whom the world has gone wrong, to whom from the beginning it has been a mistake, who have only enough reason to raise them a little above or degrade them a little below the animals. Is there no better thing reserved for them? Is there no further lesson or meaning in all this suffering? To one of us it may perhaps be said, ‘Son, thou in thy lifetime hadst thy good things.’ But what of Lazarus laid at the gate full of sores? Wherever we go, these sights of human sin and suffering, if we read them aright, lead us to the reflection that this world is not all.

And there is another kind of witness, which is borne by the actions and wrongs of good and great men, having this hope and faith in them, who have devoted their whole lives to the good of their fellow-creatures. When they have died for them, when they have renounced all that men usually most desire, fame, wealth, earthly happiness, for the interests of knowledge, for the improvement of mankind, for the love of Christ, has all that been a mistake? and have the best of men been after all the most mistaken? There have been some in past times who have perished at the stake; there have been those in our own day who have gone down in a ship to save the lives of others. Did the waves close over them for ever? If so, (I hardly like to ask the question) is not the life of Christ, 333instead of being the hope and support of the world, the greatest illusion of all? and those words which He spoke, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ a deception? and were not the saints who followed Him and have partaken of His sufferings only grasping at a shadow?

Like the Apostle, we feel that God has not been deceiving us in all this, and that Christ was not uttering unmeaning words. And, although He has not allowed us to enter within the veil, yet He has given witnesses and assurances enough to guide our footsteps in this world, and to support us in the valley of death. We do not sorrow, when we commit our beloved ones to the tomb, as though we were without hope, knowing that we are giving them back to God from whom they came, and looking forward to the time of our own departure. We say from our inmost souls, ‘Let me die the death of the righteous and let my last end be like his.’ And, when that hour comes, though, considering the imperfect nature of our lives and the darkness that partly encircles us, we may not have such rapturous anticipations as have been ascribed to some of the saints of old, we still pray that we may be able to say in faith, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.’

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