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The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.
THAT any one should degenerate to that degree of unreasonable baseness, as to deny that being and power by which he breathes, is not easy to imagine, did not some force us to believe so much of them upon their own word; such as, history tells us, were Diagoras Melius, Theodorus Cyrenaeus, and the like: and we have no cause to have so much better an opinion of the modern age, as to doubt that it has those who are ready enough to let fly and vent the same impiety. Though, let them affirm it never so much in words, there are not wanting arguments to persuade us, that their mouth belies their heart; and that they have an inward, invincible sense of what they outwardly renounce, holding them under the iron bands of a conviction not to be stifled or outbraved, or hectored out of their conscience; as shall be discoursed of afterwards.
In the words we have these two particulars:
I. An assertion made; There is no God.
II. The person by whom it is made; the fool.
As for the assertion, we may consider in it two things: first, the thing asserted; second, the manner of its assertion.
As for the thing asserted, that there is no God, it may be understood,169
1. Either, first, of an absolute removal of the divine being and existence; that there is no such spiritual, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent nature, as we call God: but that the world is of itself; and that there is nothing else distinct from it. This is the highest degree of asserting that there is no God.
2. It may be understood of a removal of God’s providence, by which he governs and takes account of all the particular affairs of the world; and more especially of the lives and actions of men, so as to reward or punish them, according as they are good or evil. This is a lower degree of atheism; but has altogether as masculine an influence upon the manners and practices of men as the former; and perhaps, upon a due improvement of consequences, will be found to end in it. Epicurus was of this opinion. He confessed that there was a God: but as for his interposing or concerning himself in our affairs here below, this he utterly denied; and that for a reason as absurd as his assertion was impious; namely, that it would disturb his ease, and consequently interrupt his felicity, to superintend over our many little and perplexed businesses.
Now, I suppose, the text may be understood equally of both these senses: and accordingly I shall so take it in the ensuing discourse.
2dly, The next thing is the manner of the assertion, The fool hath said in his heart. It wears the badge of guilt, privacy, and darkness; and, as if it were sensible of the treason it carries in its bowels, it hides its head, and dares not own itself in the face of the sun and of the world. Atheism is too conscious to be venturous and open: that is the property of truth, the daughter of the light and of the day. 170It is not the nature of this ill thing to display itself in words, and to summon proselytes upon the market place. It will not hang up a flag of defiance against God, and cry out, Hear, O heaven, and hearken, O earth; there is no such thing as a maker and governor of the universe; it is all but a crafty invention of statesmen, priests, and politicians, to bring mankind to their lure, and to bind the bonds of government faster upon societies.
No; the atheist is too wise in his generation, to make remonstrances and declarations of what he thinks. His tongue shall keep the track of the common and received way of discoursing; and perhaps his interest may sometimes carry him so far, as to disguise his behaviour with zeal for the assertion of those things which his belief is a stranger to. It is his heart, and the little council that is held there, that is only privy to his monstrous opinions. There it is that he dethrones his Maker, and deposes conscience from its government and vicegerency. For here, he knows, he may think, and think freely and uncontrollably; since there is no casement in his bosom, no listening hole in his heart, from which the informer may catch and carry away a guilty thought.
He that would see the stage upon which human liberty acts entirely and to the utmost, must retreat into his heart, and there he shall see a principle absolute and unshackled, and not framed into any demureness and assumed postures of virtue and gravity, from the awe of men’s eye and observation, which, instead of the man, exhibits only a dress to the spectator. He shall find his heart bold enough to question the laws he bows to; to examine the first 171principles, that in his profession lie sacred and untouched; to ransack and look into foundations; and, in a word, to think as he pleases, while he speaks and does as he is commanded.
It will now concern us to inquire a little, what is meant and implied by the fool’s saying in his heart that there is no God.
I conceive it may imply these following things.
1st, An inward wishing, that there was no God. There is nothing more properly the language of the heart, than a wish. It is the thirst and egress of it, alter some wanted, but desired object. The atheist first pleases his contemplation, with the supposition of that free range that he might take in all the gar dens of pleasure, if there were no superior eye to supervise and judge him. And how brave a thing it were to have the entertainments of a feast every day, and no reckoning brought up in the rear of them! To be voluptuous, and yet unaccountable! To be lord and master, and supreme in his choice, and to obey nothing but his own appetites!
These reflections fill his fancy with glistering imaginations: and the man cannot hold, but wish that troublesome thing, the Deity, that so sours and thwarts his contents, removed and wholly took out of the way; than which there cannot be a thought of an higher malignity, and a more daring venom. For he that wishes a thing, would certainly effect it, if it were in his power. He that would have no God, is full of indignation that there is one; and, according to the poet’s fable of the giants attempting to scale heaven, and to fight with the gods; so would he ascend, and ravish the sceptre from the hands of Omnipotence, nestle himself in the government 172of the world, and, like Lucifer, place himself higher than the Most High.
Now it is probable that God punishes the wish, as much as he does the actual performance: for what is performance, but a wish, perfected with a power: and what is a wish, but a desire, wanting opportunity of action; a desire sticking in the birth, and miscarrying for lack of strength and favourable circumstances to bring it into the world. Certain it is, that wishes discover the most genuine and natural temper of the soul; for no man is more heartily himself, than he is in these.
They are indeed the chief weapons with which atheism can strike at the Deity: for the wickedness and malice of man cannot make any change in God. It cannot shake any of these solid felicities that the divine nature is possessed of. The atheist can only wish, and would, and desire; that is, with the snake he can hiss, and shew his poison; but it is not in his power to be mischievous any further.
2dly, The fool’s saying in his heart that there is no God, implies his seeking out arguments to persuade himself that there is none. Where the heart is concerned, it will quickly employ the head; and reason shall be put to the drudgery of humouring a depraved mind, by providing it with a suitable hypothesis. The invention must be set a work to hammer out something that may sit easy upon an atheistical disposition.
Hereupon the mind begins to boggle at immaterial substances, as things paradoxical and incomprehensible. It brings itself, by degrees, to measure all by sense; and to admit of nothing, but as it is conveyed and vouched by the judgment of the eye, 173the ear, and the touch. A being purely spiritual shall he flouted at, as a chimera, and a subtile nothing.
Besides, men see all things still continue in the same posture, and proceed in the same course; which makes them question, whether there be any overruling, governing being, distinct from that visible frame of things that is always in their view. As those scoffers in St. Peter questioned the future judgment, upon the sight of the constant, unchanged tenor of things, 2 Peter iii. 4; Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
They will declaim against a Deity also from this, that they think all human affairs proceed by chance and accident, and great disorder; and consequently are not under the disposal or management of any superior understanding, that may be presumed to regulate and take cognizance of them. They see pious men afflicted, and the wicked exalted; the oppressor triumphing and clothing himself with the spoils of oppressed innocence and humility. They observe, that virtue is no step to wealth or honour; and that conscience is but an hinderance, and a stop to greatness. And perhaps also they find by experience in themselves, that they never thrived so well, as when they acted freely and boldly, and without the control of rules; when they unshackled themselves from the niceties and punctilios of that fruitless, unprofitable thing, called sincerity.
And these considerations may well be thought so much the more prevalent working in a corrupt breast, since we read, that they have made no small 174impression, even upon the most excellent and sanctified persons: they staggered such heroes in the faith as David, Jeremy, and the like: they engaged them in a dispute with God himself about the justice and equality of his actings: they changed them, from believers, into disputants; and made them undertake their Maker for their opponent. Now, what the pious and the faithful may doubt of, the atheist may well be thought to deny. And no question but he puts his wits upon the rack, and uses all the art, learning, and industry he is master of, to rid himself of the belief of a God; a God that governs, and will hereafter judge the world. The thought of which cannot but be a perpetual check and allay to the revels of the epicure; and consequently must needs put him to relieve himself by the best shifts he can, to conjure down the terrors of his mind, and to drown the clamours and threatenings of his conscience; which, as long as he acknowledges a Deity, will be sure to torment him with a secret, unsupportable sting.
3dly, For the fool to say in his heart, There is no God, implies not only a seeking for reasons and arguments, but also a marvellous readiness to acquiesce in any seeming probability or appearance of reason that may make for his opinion. Which is a sure demonstration of a mind desperately in love with a notion, and yet suspicious and indifferent of the truth of it. It is a sign that a man is falling, when he catches at straws, and every little nothing, to support him. The atheist, who is so rigid an exactor of evidence and demonstration for the proof of those points that he rejects, yet with the most impudent and unreasonable partiality produces no such 175thing, but only remote, pitiful, precarious conjectures, for the assertion and defence of his own in fidelity.
As for instance, how weak and slight were all the foregoing exceptions alleged in his behalf! His first cavil, produced against immaterial substances; concerning which, can the atheist prove that it implies any contradiction or absurdity, that there should be such substances, such natures as fall not under the cognizance of outward sense? Is there any solid argument to overthrow this? If there be, whence is it, that none of the philosophers have been hitherto able to assign such an one; and solidly to evince, as well as magisterially to assert, that all substance includes in it the dimensions of quantity; and consequently, that substance and body are but terms equivalent?
And then, for the other exception, drawn from the prosperity of the wicked, and the present afflictions of the godly and virtuous: is there any such disorder or injustice in this, when the assertors of Providence assert also a future estate of retribution in another world? where the present sense of things shall be vastly and universally changed; and the epicure shall pass from his baths, and his beds of roses, into a bed of flames; and the poor, distressed saint be translated from his prison and his oppressors, into joys, pleasures, and glories that are unspeakable. It may be replied, that the atheist believes no such thing: but, whether he does or no, it is not material as to our present business, which is only to prove the reasonableness of God’s dealing with the wicked and the just, in this world, upon supposition of the truth of this principle; which it has not 176been in the power of any atheist yet to shake or to disprove; and, for the present, falls not under this discourse.
4thly and lastly, To mention yet another way, different from all the former: for a man to place his sole dependence, as to his chief good and happiness, on any thing besides God, is (as we may so speak) virtually, and by consequence, for him to say in his heart, There is no God. It is indeed the voice of a man’s actions, the direct affirmation of his life: for while a man expects that from the creature, which every created being can only have, and consequently ought only to expect, from its creator, it is a practical, and (in its kind) a loud denial of a God; inasmuch as in this case a man so behaves himself, as if really there were none: and therefore in scripture is most emphatically styled, a living without God in the world.
Which, though it does not always include a direct denial of the divine existence, yet, so far as the acknowledgment of that ought to influence the life, the impiety of it is the very same, and the absurdity greater. For grant but the speculative atheist his supposition and principle, that there is no Deity or Providence, and he cannot be charged with any great unreasonableness of proceeding, for his giving way to all his appetites and lusts in the prosecution of their respective excesses and irregular gratifications. But for a man, who has not paved his way to such a licence of acting, by a life of the same principle, but who owns in his mind a clear and a standing persuasion of the being of a supreme maker, judge, and governor of the world, yet to trample upon all rules and laws prescribed for the regulation 177of his behaviour towards this his Maker, and to give himself wholly over to the dictates of his unbridled passions and affections; this assuredly is the height of folly; it is the granting of the antecedent in the judgment, and the denial of the consequence in the practice.
That man who places all his confidence, hope, and comfort, in his estate, his friend, or greatness, so that upon the failure of any of these his heart sinks, and he utterly desponds as to all enjoyment or apprehension of any good or felicity to be enjoyed by man, does as really deify his estate, his friend, and his greatness, as if in direct terms he should say to each of them, Thou art my God; and should rear an altar or a temple to them, and worship before them in the humblest adoration: nay, it is much more; since God looks upon himself as treated more like a Deity, by being loved, confided in, and depended upon, than if a man should throng his temple with an whole hecatomb, sacrifice thousands of rams, and pour ten thousand rivers of oil upon his altars.
Let every man, therefore, lay his hand upon his heart, and consider with himself, what that thing is that wholly takes it up and commands it as to all its affections; and let him know, that that thing, whatsoever it be, is his God; and that God really so accounts of it: and consequently, that it is possible for a man to say in his heart, that there is no God, though he neither blasphemes, or denies his being, nor divests him of his providence, and government of the world.
And thus much for the first thing, the assertion that there in no God. I come now to the second, 178namely, the author of this assertion, who, the text tells us, is the fool; and his folly will be made to appear from these following reasons.
1st, That such an one, in making and holding this assertion, contradicts the general judgment and notion of mankind. He opposes his drop to the ocean, his little forced opinion to the torrent of universal, natural instinct, that infused this persuasion into every one before his first milk. It is a notion, that a man is not catechized, but born into: his mother’s womb was the school he learned it in. It sticks to him like a piece of his essence, and his very being is the argument that enforces it.
Hereupon it has possessed and spread itself into all nations, all languages, all societies and corporations: nor was it ever known, that any company of men constantly owned the denial of a Deity. Many nations have indeed foully erred, and abused their reason in the particular choice of a God, or rather of the worship of God. For I verily believe, that when the Egyptians, and others, worshipped this thing or that, they designed to worship the Supreme Being, as manifesting some effect of his power or goodness by that thing. I say, though the nations perverted themselves by idolatry, yet the general notion and acknowledgment of a Deity remained entire amongst them. So that the contrary opinion of the atheist is not so much confuted as overwhelmed. And there is no man that can rationally profess himself an atheist, but must also profess himself wiser than the whole world, oppose his single ratiocination to the ratiocination of all mankind: but surely, the match will be found marvellous, unequal; and the vast disparity of the very number 179will be an unanswerable presumption against him. For what can he be thought to find out, or discern, more than so many millions of the subtlest and most improved wits, every one of which was perhaps of a quicker apprehension and a further reach than himself?
It is morally impossible for any falsity to be universally received and believed, both as to all times and places; and therefore an atheist appears in the world as a strange, unusual thing, as an irregularity, and exception from the standing rules of nature; like a man born without legs or arms, or, indeed, rather, without an head or an heart.
2dly, The folly of such a person appears in this, that he lays aside a principle easy and suitable to reason, and substitutes in the room of it one strange and harsh, and, at the best, highly improbable. For is it not most suitable to reason, there being a necessity of a first mover, a thing granted by all, that an intelligent nature of a substance above the grossness of body, infinite in wisdom, power, goodness, and all other perfections, should first of all contrive and give being to this fabric of the world, and afterwards preserve, govern, and order every thing in it to his wise and righteous purposes? Is there any thing, I say, in this, that an unprejudiced reason does not immediately close or fall in with, as that that is fairly consistent with all its principles, and grates upon none of them?
But the atheist that puffs at this, and lays it wholly aside, what does he resolve the phenomena of nature into? How come we by this world, according to his philosophy? Why, he either tells us, that it was from eternity; a strange (though much 18O the most rational) hypothesis that he can frame. For if it has existed from all eternity, whence is it that we have no history or record of any thing be yond a little above five thousand years? How come the transactions of so many myriads of years to be swallowed up in such deep silence and oblivion? And as for the story even of those five thousand years, we are beholding to the scriptures for it; for all profane histories set out from a much later date: so that this hypothesis is hugely improbable, and unfit for any rational man to build his discourse, much less to venture his salvation upon.
But if this will not do, we are told, that there was an infinite, innumerable company of little bodies, called atoms, from all eternity, flying and roving about in a void space, which at length hitched together and united; by which union and connection, they grew at length into this beautiful, curious, and most exact structure of the universe.
A conceit fitter for bedlam than a school or an academy; and took up, as it were, in direct opposition to common sense and experience. For, let any one take a vessel full of sand or dust, and shake it from one end of the year to the other, and see whether ever it will fall into the figure of an horse, an eagle, or a fish: or, let any one shake ten thousand letters together, till by some lucky shake they fall at length into an elegant poem or oration. That chance and blind accident, the usual parent of confusion and all deformity in men’s actions, should yet in this outdo the greatest art and diligence in the production of such admirable, stupendous effects, is contrary to all the rules that human nature has been hitherto accustomed to judge by; and fit for 181none to assert but for him, who with his God has also renounced his reason.
3dly, The folly of such a person appears from the causes and motives inducing him to take up this opinion; which, amongst others, are two.
1st, Great impiety, and disquiet of conscience consequent thereupon. Some have sinned their accounts so high, and debauched their consciences so far, that they dare not look the persuasion of a Deity in the face; and therefore they think to convey themselves from God, by hiding God from themselves; by suppressing, and, as much as they can possibly, extinguishing all belief and thought of him. They are so hardened in sin, and so far gone in the ways of sensuality, that to think of retreating by repentance is loathsome, and worse than death to them; and therefore they cut the work short, and take oft all necessity of repentance by denying providence, and a future judgment of the lives and actions of men.
2dly, The second cause of this opinion is great ignorance of nature and natural causes. It is a saying of the lord Bacon, that a taste and smattering of philosophy inclines men to atheism, but a deep and a thorough knowledge of it directly leads men to religion. And if the assertor of the world’s eternity, or of its emerging out of the forementioned coalition of atoms, would consider how impossible it is for a body to put itself into motion, without the impulse of some superior immaterial agent; and what an unactive, sluggish thing that is that the philosophers call matter, and how utterly unable to fashion itself into the several forms it bears, he 182would quickly fly to a spiritual, intelligent mover, such an one as we affirm to be God.
4thly and lastly, The folly of such persons as say in their heart, There is no God, appears from those cases, in which such persons begin to doubt and waver, and fly off from their opinion. I shall instance in two.
1st, In the time of some great and imminent danger. As it is reported of the Persians in Æschylus, that were routed by the lake Strymon; and thereupon, being either to pass the ice then ready to thaw, or to be cut in pieces by the enemy; though before they held, or at least pretended to hold, that there was no God; yet then they fell upon their knees, and prayed to God, that the ice might bear them: nor is this to be wondered at, since all men by nature seem to have a secret acknowledgment of a certain invisible power, that is able either to help or to hurt them, which perhaps is the first rude draught and original seed of the persuasion of a Deity. And it is this secret acknowledgment that naturally makes men, in a great strait and extremity, willing to rely upon more assistances than they see, and to extend their hope further than their sense.
But now, is not every such person most ridiculous, who shall owe his religion to the disturbances of his fear, which he cast off in the settlement of his reason? Shall a little danger and confusion make him quake out his atheism, and be able to enthrone God in his mind, who by his being and constant preservation, and the exact frame and order of the universe, could never yet be convinced of any such 183thing? But this is an evident sign, that the judgment of such persons lies not in their understanding, but in the lower region of man’s nature, their affections.
2dly, The other time in which the atheist usually deserts his opinion, is the time of approaching death. What a different way of reasoning and discoursing has the mind then, and needs must it have so! for atheism is not any real persuasion, but a vain pretence and affectation, by which some would seem to be greater wits and higher speculators than other men.
But alas! affectation expires upon the death-bed. No man then has any designs to deceive or impose upon the reason of other men, much less upon his own. All his thought and desire then is, to be as safe as he can; he knows that it has been the judgment of all the wise men in the world, that there is a supreme judge, and a future estate for men’s souls; and he perceives his reason too light and too little to lay in the balance against them.
But now it is a most righteous thing with God, to let such, as have striven to free themselves from this belief, be able to overrule and bind up their conscience so far, as to keep it down for a long time; and then, at length, to let conscience loose upon them, with this terrible persuasion quick and awakened upon it: for God has not put it into any man’s power to extinguish this witness that he has left of himself in the minds of men; he has not left men so much at their own disposal, as to obliterate and rase out what he has wrote in their hearts, and to be atheists when they please. And therefore, wheresoever I have hitherto made mention of atheists, 184I understand not such as have absolutely shook off the notion of a Deity, but such as have endeavoured and attempted so to do, by arming themselves with arguments and considerations against it; and accordingly have proceeded so far, as to weaken and eclipse the present actings of this habitual persuasion; otherwise, I fully believe that there are some lucid intervals, in which, maugre all the art and force used to suppress it, it breaks forth, and shews its terrifying, commanding majesty over the guilty hearts of such wretches, but especially when they are to bid adieu to those little worldly supports, that for awhile bore up their spirits in their profaneness and contempt of God.
I have now finished what I first proposed from the words; namely, the assertion that there is no God, and the author of it, the fool.
But here, after all, is it not a sad thing, that it should be pertinent for any preacher to make a sermon against atheism? a sin, that does not only unchristian, but unman the person that is guilty of it! But we have great reason to judge that the corruption of men’s manners is grown to that enormous height, that men are not as they were heretofore. Those awes of religion and a Deity, that a less improved debauchery left still untouched upon the conscience, the modern and more throughpaced sinner endeavours to efface and throw off as pedantry and narrowness, and the foolish prejudices and infusions of education.
What this will come to, and whether God and nature will suffer men to be as bad as they strive to be, I cannot determine; but surely, they generally affect a superiority in villainy above their ancestors; and 185it is not enough for a man to approve himself a laborious drunkard, and a dexterous cheat, or a sly adulterer, unless he can set off all with the crowning perfection of passing for a complete atheist.
I suppose the foregoing discourse may be of some use to us; and if so, what can that use he so properly as to give every one of us a view and prospect into his own heart? None knows how much villainy lodges in this little retired room. The prophet tells us that the heart is desperately wicked; and we need no other argument to prove his words, than that it is the soil where this detestable weed grows. There are few who believe that they can be atheists, (even in the sense that I have declared,) but it is because they have not studied the workings and methods, the depths and hollownesses, of that subtle principle within them, their heart. But as for such as will set themselves to watch over and counter work it, so as to prevent this monstrous birth, let them be advised to beware of three things, as, I think, the most ready leaders to atheism.
1st, Great and crying sins, such as make the conscience raw and sick, and so drive it to this wretched course for its cure.
2dly, Let them beware of discontents about the cross passages of God’s providence towards them. A melancholy, discontented mind, by long brooding upon these things, has at length hatched the cockatrice’s egg, and brought forth atheism.
3dly and lastly, Let men especially beware of devoting themselves to pleasure and sensuality. There is no one thing in the world that casts God out of the heart like it, and makes the heart by degrees to hate and be weary of all thoughts of him.186
These things cannot here be insisted upon. It remains, therefore, that we endeavour to preserve a constant fear and love of the great God upon our spirits; that so we fall not into the fatal, devouring gulph of either of their sins; as, namely, to deny the Lord that bought, or to renounce the God that made us.
To whom therefore be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.187
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