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SERMON VI.

BY BRETSCHNEIDER.

THE SOULS OF THE DEAD NOT PERMITTED TO REVISIT THE EARTH.

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SERMON VI.

THE SOULS OF THE DEAD NOT PERMITTED TO REVISIT THE EARTH.

MAN sees but the present clearly and distinctly; obscure is the past, concealed from him the future. The images of what has past in our own life fade away more and more every year, and one object after another recedes from the light of certainty into the twilight of uncertainty, which is spread over all former time, and is lost in thick darkness at the point where our consciousness, for the first time, like a ray of light, illumined our being. More hidden from us than the past is the future. Human sagacity, indeed, foresees some few things, but this is but as a drop in the stream of future events, and all foresight ends at the grave. Beyond this all is veiled from us in the deepest obscurity. We shall continue to be, we shall receive retribution: so much we know. But no human eye penetrates into the mysterious land of reward, and never, never has it been permitted to any deceased being to return 108to this life, and inform us of things beyond the grave. For all which credulity or superstition has not seldom related of apparitions of the dead, has been found, on examination, either a fraud or illusion. Fruitless too has it been, when friends have entered into an agreement, that whichever of them died first, would appear again to the other, or would, at least, give him a visible proof of his being still in existence: for such a reappearance has never resulted; the kingdom of the dead is firmly closed, and no mortal ever breaks its mysterious seal. But unbelief seizes on this with eagerness; on this account it triumphs and laughs at the hope of the believer, as a pleasant, but groundless delusion. Every thing which reason, every thing which religion offers, of power to elevate the soul to the hope of immortality, it thinks to confound with a single word. It says openly, that if there were an immortality, one of the dead must some time appear again upon earth; and it declares undisguisedly, that it will hold the expectation of immortality to be an idle hope, until one of the dead shall have risen and returned into the land of the living. The virtuous also and believer, cannot sometimes refrain from wishing, that the departed might again appear to the living, and by their presence and their assurance might make them certain of an immortality, and instruct them as to the nature of the life after death. They flatter 109themselves, that unbelief would thereby be fully confuted, every doubt overcome, the necessity of a virtuous life incontrovertibly demonstrated, and a general improvement of the human race infallibly effected. This was also the hope which the rich man, in the instructive story of this day’s Gospel, entertained. But Jesus contradicted it, and gave the assurance, that unbelievers would not believe, and the vicious would not become virtuous, even if the dead could and might reappear and preach amendment. To convince you of this, you will, perhaps, my friends, think it difficult. You still, perhaps, believe, that such appearances must produce a great effect. But, in truth, neither more faith nor more virtue would, on this account, be found amongst men. Let us now consider further on this subject, and for the strengthening of our faith, and to invalidate so common an objection against immortality, let us endeavour to be persuaded of the truth of the assurance of Jesus.

Luke xvi. 31.

And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

THE narrative of Jesus concluding with these words is one of the most instructive to be found in Scripture. 110It pourtrays a luxurious rich man, who entirely surrendered himself to sensual enjoyment, and followed the principle, “eat, drink, and be merry, for death puts an end to all things,” but who after death found it quite different from what he had expected. He had five brethren as dissolute as himself, and abandoned to the same fallacious opinions. He intreated that Lazarus might be sent to them to testify, that is, to bear witness to them, by his presence and information, of the continued duration of the human soul, and the recompence of good and evil, that they might amend their lives. For he hoped that they would be so much struck by the reappearing of the deceased Lazarus, or some other from the dead, that they would reform and believe in eternity. Yet Jesus assures us, that this desire never can be gratified, and that if it could, it would be of no use. There are, doubtless, not a few, who wish that such a reappearance of the dead might be possible, and who believe, that it must have the most important consequences in the improvement of men, and in confounding unbelief. Why then has God not permitted the souls of the dead to appear again to the living, in order to place the immortality of the soul beyond all doubt? Our Gospel sets forth three reasons why God does not allow this, since Jesus declares it to be, first, impossible; secondly, quite superfluous; and thirdly, useless, even if it did take place.

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In the first place, then, the Lord declares such a reappearance to be impossible. For as the rich man expressed. the wish that Lazarus might be sent to him, to mitigate his torments, he received for answer;—that there was a wide and impassable gulf fixed between the souls of the blessed and the cursed, that none could go to the other side, but every one must remain in the spot which God. had appointed for its abode. But if no soul may leave the place of reward or punishment, it is also evident that none can return to their old dwelling-place, this earth, and appear in any visible shape to mortal eyes. But what Jesus here declares impossible, reason also admits to be so, after mature reflection. It is, namely, impossible in itself, that the souls of the dead can be seen with our bodily eyes. The soul itself is a spirit, consequently not visible to the eye of the body; and supposing even it were not entirely an incorporeal essence, but of the finest substance, it would still be just as invisible to our eye as the air, and many other invisible acting powers in nature. Souls, therefore, separated from their bodies, can never become an object of perception to our senses. Should we, however, admit that the souls of the departed, on entering the regions of immortality, are again united to new bodies, which might be perceptible to our senses, yet according to the laws of gravity, they would be fastened to their dwelling-place, by means of these 112bodies, and could not leave it to revisit our earth. They would then be in the same situation in which they were here, where they were confined to this earth on account of their union with the body, and could not leave it, in order to go into another globe. It seems also impossible, that a spirit becoming perfected should ever have a desire, freely and of its own accord, to return again to the earth, and to hold intercourse with this imperfect world. If there are extremely few men who desire to begin life on earth over again, how should an immortal voluntarily wish to come back to the scene of earthly imperfection? And did such an one wish it, and were it possible, that he could be manifested to our senses; is it to be imagined, that such a journey to our earth would be. compatible with the destiny for which the blessed spirits live, and that souls could ever quit the state of retribution? Viewed on all sides, the reappearance of the dead seems to us an impossibility. But supposing, again, that their return to earth were possible, yet would the recognition of them be impossible; we should never be certain that what we saw was actually the person we had known. One may boldly call upon every one, who entertains a wish that the dead might again appear, to declare, in what manner a deceased person should or could convince us, that it is the same whom we have known in life, and by what means he could impart information to us respecting 113his condition and that of the dead. It is the body by which we know each other here, but the body of every one departed this life moulders in the grave. By what then should we know the souls of our acquaintances? By this, perhaps, that they disclose to us the peculiarities of their character. But how uncertain is this distinction, and how similar are men in principles, sensations, and that which we call character? Or shall they be known by this, that they remind us of secrets, which we know they alone were acquainted with? But how few men have such secrets!

And who could answer for it that a thousand other spirits do not know our secrets perfectly, well? Who, (and that is the worst) who could ensure us, that other spirits, and those perhaps hateful to us, might not in this manner deceive us with vain hopes, or distress us with idle fears? By what then could we know, how discern by our senses, that an apparition presented to our view was actually the soul of a human being? And how could such a spirit instruct us concerning futurity after death? By words possibly. But in order to produce words, the organs of speech of the human body are requisite, which defunct persons no longer possess. They cannot, therefore, speak after the manner of men, and in tones audible by human ears. How else then shall they communicate with us? Shall they, perhaps directly, cause thoughts 114and sensations to arise in our minds, without our observing their presence with our senses? But how then could we distinguish these thoughts and sensations from our own, how be assured that it is the spirit of a deceased human being, which directly affects our spirit? And could such an impression, which must ever remain a mystery to us, be called an appearance of the dead? And would it have power to convert the unbeliever, and confirm our hope of immortality? Thus, contemplated on all sides, the re-appearance of the dead, the recognition of them, and the receiving of instruction from them, is quite impossible and inconceivable.

This is also corroborated by experience, which has never been able to produce a single credible instance of such a reappearing of the souls of the dead. For all supposed experiences of this kind have been at last proved to be fraud or delusion. Even Jesus after his resurrection appeared, not to his friends in the spirit, but in the body, and it was the latter by which his faithful ones knew him. When, therefore, the unbeliever, like, the rich man in the Gospel, requires, that the dead should first appear to him, before he can believe in immortality, and when the man of anxious mind wishes such an apparition, that at least all doubts may be dissipated, and a powerful stimulus to reform given to sinners; then the former demands and the latter desires something impossible. But every demand 115extending to what is impossible, is unrighteousness; and every wish coveting what is impossible, is folly. But such a reappearing of the dead is, secondly, entirely unnecessary and superfluous; for we have, as Jesus says, or makes Abraham say, “Moses and the prophets,” whom we should hear; that is, we have already so many valid reasons for the immortality of the soul, that no further confirmation is necessary. It would be superfluous here to discuss at length the grounds which reason and revelation offer for the certainty of immortality. I have only this to remind you of, that these reasons must be fully satisfactory to us. Let us first refer to the arguments of reason. With what right does the unbeliever reject its conclusions, with what right does he ascribe a greater certainty to the perceptions of the senses? A double power of discernment was given to mankind by the Creator; the senses, which are in the body, for the material objects of the visible world, and reason, a power of the soul, for invisible things, and for the truths of the understanding. Both powers of discernment are gifts of the Creator, both bestowed on us wit] the same intention, although the objects are different; both, therefore, are of equal value, both afford equal certainty, and deserve equal credit. It must therefore be sufficient for us, if reason gives us good grounds for the truth of any supposition, and it is clearly an useless scepticism when we expect proofs 116through the senses for objects of rational discernment. We must rather confide as much, and as firmly believe in the decision of reason respecting invisible things, as in the decision of the senses respecting visible objects. And as we require no proofs from reason, that the corn looks green, although some with distempered sight may assure us it appears to them red or yellow; as we require no proof from reason of the existence of distant visible objects, although some short-sighted persons assure us they can see nothing; so little need have we to demand a sensible proof of our duration after death, though some, whose minds are disordered by vice, by an evil conscience, or by scepticism, will not give credit to reason. Yet it is not the argument of reason alone which we should hear; we have also a confirmation in the doctrine of our Lord. We have numberless declarations in his divinely accredited word; we find in his person, in the sublime work of redemption, which lie effected by his death, and through which an entrance has been opened to us into a blessed eternity, we find in his glorious resurrection and in his ascension to his heavenly Father, the most sufficient surety that we are immortal. What further testimony do we want? Can any thing afford us a stronger assurance that men are designed for eternity than this, that God sent his Son to them? Can any thing be a surer pledge to us of immortality, than that Jesus instituted 117an atonement, by which we are saved from eternal death, and dedicated to everlasting life? Can man in the dust ask more of his Creator than these assurances and this pledge, which we have in Jesus?

Nevertheless if we would still require any other proof of immortality through the senses, we have one at hand, which certifies it to us as strongly and more strongly, than the problematical appear. ante of any deceased person; namely, the sight of the immense universe and the countless glorious dwelling-places, which God has created for rational beings. Our eyes behold with deep admiration innumerable worlds spread over heaven’s space, all which outwardly have much similarity with the earth we inhabit, and are evidently far greater and more brilliant theatres of the majesty of the Creator, than the small globe on which we live. But what further evidence, my friends, do we need? Why should the souls of the dead descend from the abodes which Divine mercy has allotted them, to assure us, that the precious word of Jesus our Lord is true, when he says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.” Do not our delighted eyes clearly behold these heavenly dwellings? Can any thing else more strongly persuade us of their existence, than the admiring view of them itself? With what right then can the unbeliever demand, and the wavering wish, that the spirits of the dead should assure us 118of the certainty of immortality? Have we not the strongest proofs, supported too by the sight of the visible universe, which do not leave room for the smallest doubt

Supposing, however, that we really received the confirmation of our hopes by means of the dead reappearing, still, idly, such a reappearance would not convince the unbelieving nor reform the vicious, and consequently is quite useless. Unbelievers and profligate men are too apt to say with the rich man, ‘Certainly, if one arose from the dead and preached to us repentance, then we would, then we must believe, and we should immediately amend our lives.’ But Jesus assures us this is a vain expectation. “If,” says he, “they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither would they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” That is, if the grounds, with which reason and revelation furnish us for believing in immortality, have no influence on our minds, neither would it make any impression, if the dead returned, appeared, and preached to us. And in truth, my brethren, so it is. Neither faith nor virtue would gain any thing by it; unbelievers would not be converted, the vicious not be amended. For supposing it were possible that the dead could appear and instruct us, yet we should never be quite certain of these apparitions; they would lose their power through custom and length of time; and lastly would rob our virtue of all that can give it 119any worth. We should never be quite certain that we were not deceived; we should always, therefore, be in doubt, whether they were really the souls of departed men, which appeared to us. This lies in the nature of the thing. The appearance of the dead would naturally always have something enigmatical and incomprehensible in it. No means can be conceived, as we have already seen, by which we could be fully persuaded, that any apparition was the spirit of one who was dead, and nothing could give us a surety, that such a spirit really reported, and could report, to us the truth. Such apparitions, therefore, would always leave great scope for incredulity, and even he who would gladly believe, would never bring his conviction to the requisite degree of certainty. What then could be expected from these apparitions? How could they produce considerable effects? How convert the unbeliever and doubter, since the latter questions or rejects much more palpable and fully proved truths? If, however, we assume that we could be certain with regard to appearances of this kind, yet they would lose all power over our minds through custom and length of time. Do you doubt that, my hearers? Well then, let us attend to experience. It is universally known and confessed, that the impression which great events at first excite, gradually becomes weaker, and is at length effaced. You find perhaps examples of this in your own lives. 120Now should the dead but seldom appear, perhaps only once in a generation, or but once to every man, the first impression would then indeed be striking; but its strength would wear out with every month and every year, and at last cease to operate. But should these appearances be of ordinary occurrence, they would have far less influence; for we become indifferent to the most remarkable and extraordinary things, by being accustomed to them. The knowledge alone of the future, the danger, the punishment, is truly insufficient to make men wise. What avails it, when the physician points out ever so clearly to the sensualist, that he is preparing for himself an early grave What avails it, when the intemperate man, the glutton, the voluptuary, sees before him numerous examples of wretchedness, to which these vices lead? What impression does it make, when the spendthrift sees his fortune daily diminishing, and can calculate the day on which he will be poor? What profits it that the thief, the highway robber, has daily before his eyes the place of execution, and may foretel his lot from the example of others? It profits nothing, as experience testifies! The first impression fades away by degrees, and frequent recurrence deprives it still more of its power. Those, therefore, who despise the voice of reason and revelation, the voice of the wisest men and the most evident experience, would not believe and be reformed, “though one rose from the dead.”

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Represent to yourselves, my friends, that you would convince a company of persons born blind of this truth, that we shall enter after death into a new and more glorious world, for that our Lord has assured us, there are many mansions in his Father’s celestial house, and that there a new and blissful abode is prepared for us. Suppose they doubted, and replied to you, ‘How idle is the hope with which you would console us! Where are the mansions of heaven of which the Lord speaks? If they exist, why have we no perception of them through the senses? No, we cannot believe in this hope, until we see and perceive the heavenly dwellings.’ Imagine, further, that the eyes of these born blind were opened, and the splendour of the sun, the moon, and the innumerable stars of night, poured upon their vision. Then they would fall down and adore, then they would say, ‘Yes, now our hearts believe, for our eyes behold worlds on worlds. Yes, we shall be immortal.’ But how long, my friends, would this impression last? Do you yourselves furnish the answer. In a short time they would look upon the universe with as much indifference, as that with which an unbelieving and profligate man, who has seen it for years, looks upon it; they would doubt as much and require fresh proofs, as do many who see. Can you then still think, that apparitions of the dead would have a different result?

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But if such apparitions could really produce that great effect upon unbelieving and vicious men, which people are so inclined to expect, our virtue would thereby entirely lose all that gives it any degree of merit. The Deity, who has given us so many pledges of his grace in our reason, in revelation, in the sight of the world and of heaven, requires of us, and with justice, trust in his word, faith in his promises; he requires the obedience of faith, that is, that we should hold his word to be true, which he has revealed to us in the Scripture and by our reason, and that we live righteously and die confidently in the belief of it. The virtuous, whose virtue, the pious, whose trust proceeds from this faith, is a true child of God, his life is a real service of God, for by love and faith in God he overcomes the world, iniquity, and death. Without beholding with his eyes the rewards of the future world, he is virtuous, and trusts in his heavenly Father, that he will reward him. Without seeing with his eyes the punishments of the future world, he shuns wickedness, because he knows it is against the will of his heavenly Father. And this faith it is, which renders our virtuous actions well-pleasing to God, and gives them their worth in the sight of men. But if the dead must first come out of their graves, in order to confirm by their testimony the word of God which is in us and in the Scripture; if we will not believe and follow the 123voice of God, but only our own eyes and ears; we have then no merit, our virtue is no longer a service of God, no longer the fruit of a filial disposition, confiding in God. If, therefore, it is impossible in itself, that the dead should appear again to the living; if such a reappearing is quite superfluous, since the hope of immortality already possesses the most perfect security; and if, lastly, it would neither convert unbelievers, nor reform the dissolute, and in general have no important effect; we must surely see, how foolish is the desire for such apparitions, and with what little ground the want of them is considered as a palliation of unbelief in immortality. For to desire what is impossible, unnecessary, and useless, and moreover to reject what is most worthy of belief and most clearly proved, is either folly or wickedness.

No, my friends, let us not be guilty of this folly. Our belief in the life after death has exactly that degree of certainty and clearness, which is expedient for us. It is strong enough to incite us to a godly behaviour, without making us unfit for the business of this life; powerful enough to raise us above the sorrows of this life, without making its enjoyments tasteless to us. More light would dazzle our understanding, more certainty would rob us of the joys of life. We should “live by faith and not by sight:” “it doth not yet appear what we shall be,” neither shall it here appear. We should exercise 124ourselves in hope, and trust in God, and learn obedience. Happy they, who understand this, and preserve their faith and virtue! What they here believe, their eyes shall one day behold; that which they strive after, they shall succeed in obtaining; that which they hope, shall become certain truth. For never, never can the word in us and the word in Scripture deceive us. Both come from God, and God is truth.

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