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Judgment Days

( Originally Published 1912 )

He will judge the world in righteousness.—New Testament.

The idea of a coming judgment day, in which all mortals are to be assembled for a final estimate of their earthly life, is so large and so impressive that it may well merit a separate study. It has engaged much of the religious thought of mankind and has been a fruitful source of hope and terror.

Both as to place and time, the origin of the belief can not now be found. It is hidden behind the impenetrable curtain that hangs between the present and the far off past. It is evident that it did not originate in Christianity. It is not peculiar to any special form of religion. Long before the New Testament writers endeavored to set it forth with their picturesque and impressive imagery, the Egyptians had predicted a searching judgment day when sentence would be pronounced by Osiris. The Greek religion, which we now call mythology, was in full possession of the idea. There the judges were believed to be Minos and Rhadamanthus. These were two men who, while on earth, had such a strict sense of justice that, after death, they were raised above the lot of common mortals and were thought to be fit to rule in the realm of shades and reward or punish each soul according to its merits. From the same mythology come many familiar stories illustrating the fate of human beings in the future. There is one concerning the stone of Sisyphus. To do penance for his sins, this man was compelled to roll a huge stone up a hill, but, just before it reached the summit, his strength would fail and it would roll back to the base and the laborious task must again be undertaken. There is another story concerning the daughters of Danaus. Because of their crimes these unhappy women were sentenced to pour water into sieves and reparation could not be made until the sieves were full. Another tells of Ixion chained to a fiery wheel; and still another one tells of Tantalus with food and water forever just beyond reach of his hungry and thirsty lips. From the Norse mythology comes the picture of the terrible place called Naastrand. It signifies the shore upon which dead bodies are stranded. It was a great black cavern, far from the sun, whose door opened toward the north, region of perpetual cold and impenetrable darkness. These all indicate that the idea of judgment and punishment is not peculiar to any people or religion.

Like art, like literature, like laws, religion is the natural expression of what is in the mind and heart of mankind at any given time. If thought and feeling be high, it will rise; if they are low, it will sink to their level. Hence the idea of judgment will be as varied as the soul from which it comes. The future is always measured by the present. Man can never escape from himself. Into everything he projects his own rules, his own powers, his own limitations. The diameter of earth is always used as the base of a triangle to determine the altitude of the stars. So the diameter of man's own soul forms the basis by which the Deity is measured. Thus the religion of an age will resemble the geology, the geography, and the astronomy of the age. It never runs far in advance of the times.

Thus when the early Christian writers thought of judgment they must think of it in full harmony with their own period. It must lie within the confines of their knowledge and beliefs of all other things. Space and time were contracted to fit their theories of the world and as much of its history and as many of its laws as they knew. They thought the end of all earthly things was near at hand. While their knowledge of the actual earth was so limited, while the extent of human history and the immensity of the geologic period prior to the advent of man were unknown, it was not difficult to assume that there might be a literal day on which the inhabitants of the world should be summoned to appear at a certain place, there to have sentence passed upon them.

The increase of knowledge and the many centuries of human history that have come and gone, since that time, have compelled a revision of opinion upon the whole subject. It is now believed that earth has an age that arithmetic is almost powerless to compute. It is only a very small part of a universe that is all governed by similar laws. Man's career is much longer and broader than the annals of the Hebrew nation indicate. Creation is never fully completed but is always progressing and all things are projected on a scale that transcends human measurement. To correspond with this enlarged imformation, all religious opinions were forced to undergo a change. In the presence of the modern scientific conceptions of the universe, ancient theological ideas are as defective as Roman galleys would be when compared with a steamship or a pine torch would be in the presence of an electric light. If the writers of the New Testament and the early creed makers had known that earth was destined to move forward in its course for countless centuries, with its swarming millions of human beings, that, however important it may seem, it is only an isolated spot in a a measureless universe and, however long its history, its whole career, from star-dust onward to its ultimate condition, is only an insignificant fraction of time, they would have entertained very different ideas concerning a judgment day.

Once started in Christianity, the idea grew out of all proportion to its need or to its reasonableness. It dominated the mind and heart of the middle ages and projected itself with too much force into later centuries. Theology, poetry, and art lent themselves to give it full expression. The seventh, the thirteenth, and the sixteenth century each gave the world a judgment hymn. These hymns are too long to quote, but they abound in the most vivid and thrilling and terrible imagery. Once they inspired terror; now they are only regarded as literary curiosities. For nine years Angelo brooded over the idea of a day of wrath for the world and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel contains the result. In that famous fresco Jesus is represented as seated on a central and exalted throne pronouncing sentence upon the world. Travelers visit that chapel now, not because of their interest in the subject of the painting or because of penitence for their sins, but to admire the art of the great Florentine. Looking upon it, they are not so much animated by dread of Christ as by wonder at the massive genius of Angelo. Such hymns as the "Dies Irae" could not now be written, such pictures as the "Last Judgment" could not now be painted. The belief that inspired them has nearly all passed away. Much of the theology of the fifteenth century in the twentieh century has become mythology.

But the probabilities are that the imagery of the New Testament and the hymns and paintings is the poetic expression of some real and profound truth. The imagery may pass away while the truth it symbolized may remain. The changed conceptions of the universe brought by science and the new studies of the human race and its long history compel a change in our ideas of a judgment day. The Testament writers and hymn-makers of the middle-ages regarded the earth as the center of creation. They thought that man's whole career only ran through three or four thousand years in the past and its future would be very brief. Now all this is changed. It is seen that earth is only one small world among a multitude of worlds much larger. What may be transpiring on those greater planets no one knows. It is known that they are made of the same kind of material that earth is made and governed by the same laws earth is governed. For anything known to the contrary there may be beings upon them living out a drama similar to the one lived upon our star. Living under the same physical, they may also live under moral laws like those surrounding the children of earth. Instead of believing that the human race originated in Eden, about six thousand years ago, now it is believed that its beginnings may lie a hundred thousand years in the past. Instead of believing it fell from a higher, it is believed that it has risen from a lower condition. The early Christian writers thought the end of the world was near at hand. Paul wrote: "The time is short. The author of the Apocalypse sometimes writes as if he was already in the midst of the final catastrophe. In the tenth century the belief in the near destruction of the world was again revived. The living and the dead should soon be called before the bar of God. At intervals since that the belief has reappeared. Even now there are a few persons who prophesy the impending dissolution of earth and place heaven's final assize in the near future. But such belief cannot become widespread. The order of things all seems to be against it. Perhaps in all its long career earth was never before so well fitted to be a home of man as at this time. As perhaps for a million years in the past it has been a home for man, it may be a nobler and still nobler home for him for a million years to come, In presence of this new knowledge and these new thoughts, the old literal judgment passes into the back-ground.

Churchmen have sometimes pretended they knew all about that which befalls mankind after death. The Shorter Catechism contains this sentence:

"The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, their bodies being still united to Christ do rest in their graves until the resurrection."

The Westminster Confession is even more explicit in its statement of details. It informs us that "At the last day the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies; the bodies of the unjust shall be raised to dishonor, the bodies of the just shall be raised to honor."

It is safe to say that those who wrote these sentences went far beyond the bounds prescribed by intellectual modesty. No more than we, did they know exactly what occurs after death. When there is so much ignorance, for them and for us, silence is much more becoming. We have reached an era in which, whatever else it may be, in order to obtain acceptance religion must be rational. It is compelled to free itself from the mass of folly which it inherited from the past. Its rewards and penalties here and hereafter must be in full harmony with the method of nature. They can-not be imposed from without, but grow up from within the soul itself. They are the plain outworking of the law of cause and effect. That which it sows the heart inevitably reaps. Every day is a Judgment Day. It is a mistake to think it can be postponed to some far off future. Not only in eternity, but in time every foolish, every wicked action produces results after its kind. Here masks are raised, artificial costumes are stripped from the soul and the true character appears in all its deformity. Heaven's court is always in session. Let every drunkard, every libertine, every extortioner, every one who violates its laws beware. Its sheriff is on his trail and is not far behind him.

It is a law of the material world that all phenomena are joined to preceding phenomena. Mists rise from the sea, turn to clouds, fall as rain, make the earth fruitful and reappear as grass and flowers. Nothing stands apart and unrelated. The same method is present in all human actions. To-day is a result of all the yesterdays, A deed is the product of all pre-ceding deeds and emotions. Unable to separate it from its causes, neither can it be separated from its consequences. Unyielding and resistless as Fate, neither persuasion nor threat nor bribe nor tears can reverse this law. We do not need to wait for a resurrection of the dead nor the sound of a last trumpet nor the opening of a Doomsday book to tell us that we have done wrong. In what we do, in what we think, in what we fear and hope we may know what we are and what we deserve. The voice of nature runs over all the scale of sound. Sometimes it is gentle and low, as when the summer evening wind, passing, only stirs the rose-leaves; again it is impressive and threatening, as when the thunder rolls among the hills. So the voice of judgment may be sweet or terrible as it tells us we have done well or ill.

Thus the more rationalized religion of our day does not destroy, but only changes the idea of rewards and penalties following all human deeds. It calls the act of judgment from the future and places it in the present. It takes the scene away from the canvas of the artist and the imagery of the poet and places it among the moral intuitions and actual deeds of human life. The external pageant becomes an internal experience. There may be some loss in this change, but the gain will be far greater. That which is lost is only the imaginary; that which is gained is the real. No one can lament such a change.

Those of us who received their early impressions and religious training in the more rigidly doctrinal churches have not forgotten the vivid and awful imagery employed by preachers to portray to the young soul the coming, the transactions, and the terrible and unalterable sentences of the day of final doom. The separations taking place between parents and children, as the former passed to the communion, was used to illustrate the separations that would occur upon that judgment day. The only difference was that the parting at the communion table was only for an hour, while the parting it illustrated was for eternity. What a terrible burden that was upon some sensitive young hearts! It crushed out all hope and gladness, which are the rightful possession of childhood, leaving despair and foreboding and draping religion with garments of gloom and woe. Done in sincerity, but in ignorance such teaching was only an error. But there are some errors whose effect make them seem more like crimes. We all, and especially the youth, may rejoice that we live when religion comes in gentler form.

In a few weeks spring will re-invade our zone. Icy winds will retreat; balmy air will begin to play its low, sweet melody; birds will sing; flowers will bloom; and all our hearts will thrill with new life and expectation.

Thus we have lived to see a new spring-time come to religion. The old terror has retreated from our thought of God. His grace is as great as his justice. The sky, once thought surcharged only with the lightning of divine wrath, is now seen to be showering down blessings upon many millions of earth's children. Many of earth's judgment days are glorious all the way from their rising to their setting sun. Blessed era in which religion's sunbeams are so many, its thunder-bolts so few!

The theologies of the former centuries represented Christ as judging the world in great severity, In the more humane and more rationalized form of Christianity, its central figure is not so much an austere judge to condemn as a noble and blessed friend to inspire. Angelo and Raphael do not beat down and destroy all those who attempt to express beautiful forms and colors in marble or on canvas. Paul and Savonarola have no hatred for those who put forth some feeble effort to reform the world. St. John and St. Francis and St. Theresa do not pass harsh sentence upon all other mortals who, wishing and trying to live in harmony with the spiritual laws, have partly failed. Thus Christ does not send forth lightning—arrows of wrath against striving, but imperfect children of earth. He stands forth, not so much as a condemnation of what we are as au inspiration of what we may become. Beholding what he was and what he did, awakens in mankind the desire to ascend to greater moral heights and attempt nobler things. In an orchestra there is a standard tone that guages the pitch of all the instruments. It is there not to punish, but to guide and perfect the harmony. So, in the world's great spiritual harmony, Christ gives the key. He is not there to rebuke and silence all others, but inspire and lead them.

Our friends are among the many judges always present. There is a proverb to the effect that love is blind. It is not so in fact. No eyes are more clear, none more penetrating than those of love. What the proverb really means must be, that love sees faults, but pardons them. Nevertheless, there is no judge we may more fear than the one who loves us. This is not because he will punish us, but because of what we shall think of ourselves, having fallen below what he has a right to expect of us. We do not care what the majority may think of us; but there are a few men and women by whose sentiments, consciously or unconsciously, we measure our thoughts and acts. Unfavored is that one who has not some one whose eye is starlike in its penetration, whose heart is sunlike in its warmth to whom he can repair for counsel or approval. Having written a significant sentence in his journal Amiel said: "I should like to know what Maurice de Guerin would think of that." Thus there are many who when, having mastered a low impulse or been thrilled by a noble desire or possessed by a happy thought, involuntarially ask: "What would my friend think of that?" How happiness is added to happiness when a fine piece of scenery is discovered; or a rare flower is found; or a fine passage in a book is encountered; or when that richest of all prosperity falls,-a day when the windows of the spiritual heavens are opened and thought comes in floods,—if it an be shared with a friend! It is like setting gold in ivory. But who would not rather face all his enemies than fall below the approval of this friend to whom he has communicated all the secrets of his soul? To be worthy to be loved by a noble hearted man or woman is to be worthy of all good. He who can pass uncondemned before the white throne, where such love holds its court, need tremble before no other seat of judgment.

Our own ideals are a part of that judgment day that moves along with us through all the years. Some-times we are overtaken by a sense of the magnificence of the world in which we live and the pettiness of our lives. The tenant is not worthy of the house. Some-times we catch glimpses of the glory of the spiritual life with its sweet and gracious possibilities. There are times when the silences becomes trumpet tongued; when the darkness is luminous; when the sealed book of life is suddenly opened. If we find ourselves cowardly when bravery is demanded, shrinking when we ought to cheerfully confront duty, haunted by a horde of bad passions when the heart ought to be the abode of angels, there can be no day more terrible than this one. That which is bad in eternity, must be bad in this very moment. There are times when every part of the soul passes sentence upon itself. Memory, re-calling a past that has too much hardness and folly and sin, sometimes makes the heart moan. Meditation over the glory and opportunity of life, with much of its glory neglected and many of its opportunities wasted, brings a shadow between the heart and its happiness. Imagination, that lifts what we ought to be above what we are, as the mountain stands above the plain, brings a temporary shame and sorrow. The Supreme Good, the Supreme Beauty pleads with us all to so live that life here and hereafter may reach the greatest possible usefulness and the greatest possible happiness. If this day's evening finds us thus living, then the morning of no future judgment day can bring us any terror.

It would seem therefore that man has a nature capable of rising and falling. Rising, it is happy, falling, it is miserable. Mingling with all his years there are rebukes and approvals, punishments and rewards. Sometimes he seems to move forward under an angry cloud; sometimes his way is flooded by heaven's sun-beams.

The future will doubtless resemble the present. The great laws are in time as well as in eternity. He who lives in harmony with them to-day, need not dread them in the great to-morrow of existence. Living nobly, every day is a beautiful Judgment Day; a day whose sunrise brings hope; whose sunset brings peace; and all the intervening hours come with rich rewards.

"Heard are the Voices
Heard are the Sages
The worlds and the ages:
Choose well, your
choice is
Brief and yet endless:

Here eyes do regard you,
In Eternity's stillness;
Here is all fullness,
Ye brave to reward you:
Work, and despair not."

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