The Future Life
( Originally Published 1888 )
The question of a future life, in its religious or its speculative aspect, is of the greatest interest to every intelligent mind. We have so insatiable a craving for immortality, and are so frequently reminded of the brevity of this life, that we cannot get thoughts of the future far away from us if we would. And in most minds, could we know them well, there are, no doubt, the same questionings and balancings of probabilities regarding the condition of the future life, if there be any, that we are so familiar with in ourselves. Shall we continue to exist when we have closed our eyes upon this world, and, if so, how closely shall the life beyond resemble, or how far differ from, that we are living now? To the first of these questions, many of the most enlightened minds have felt obliged, from all they knew of God and man, to answer, Yes. To the second, the wisest men have never tried to give a very definite answer, and the two Creeds of Catholic Christendom which distinctly affirm belief in the fact of future existence are utterly silent as to its precise conditions.
We are, however, perfectly familiar with the ideas of the future that were common in the Calvinistic churches a little while ago, but of late have almost disappeared throughout New England,—ideas which, based on the most literal views of the Bible, shaped themselves into crude and sensuous doctrines of heaven and hell. The sermons of Jonathan Edwards, preached in Northampton fifty years ago, pre-sent these doctrines in their naked deformity, and shall stand perhaps to all time as the finest testimony in Calvinistic literature to the want of imagination and failure to comprehend the Bible's true character of the Calvinistic mind.
But we must not blame the Calvinists as if they alone were responsible for the crude popular theories of the future held in past times. Dante's " Inferno," as well as Milton's " Paradise Lost," portrayed for the world a " mapped and measured " heaven and hell ; Chrysostom, as well as Jonathan Edwards, depicted the torments of the lost and the joys of the saved in language full of gross, material figures. In-deed the Calvinists inherited much that was worst in all their theology from the Mediaeval Church.
In his recent book, " The Destiny of Man," Mr. John Fiske has shown that the Doctrine of Development, as expounded by Mr. Darwin and Mr. Herbert Spencer, in its relation to man, almost necessarily implies higher ranges of existence, in which his being shall have room to perfect itself. From the nature of the case, he argues, scientific demonstration of future existence is out of the question, since we cannot test the matter except by dying, but equally impossible is scientifio demonstration of no future life, and "he who regards Man as the consummate fruition of creative energy, and the chief object of Divine care, is almost irresistibly driven to the belief that the sours career is not completed with the present life upon earth. . . . From the first dawning of life we see all things working together toward one mighty goal, the evolution of the most exalted spiritual qualities which characterize humanity. . . Are Man's highest spiritual qualities, into the production of which all this creative energy has gone, to disappear with the rest? Has all this work been done for nothing? Is it all ephemeral, all a bubble that bursts, a vision that fades? Are we to regard the Creator's work as like that of a child, who builds houses out of blocks, just for the pleasure of knocking them down ? For aught that science can tell us, it may be so, but I can see no good reason for believing any such thing. On such a view the riddle of the universe becomes a riddle without a meaning. Why, then, are we any more called upon to throw away our belief in the permanence of the spiritual element in Man than we are called upon to throw away our belief in the constancy of Nature?"
It is most certainly true that, whatever doubts may arise in individual minds concerning personal immortality, science has nothing to say against it, and when we consider the almost universal longing for it, the tendency of the race to believe in it, the affirmations of master minds like Plato's, Plutarch's, Montesquieu's, Emerson's — minds necessarily free from narrow religious bias of any sort ; when we think of the latent capacities and powers of man, of some of which we have as yet received only the feeblest intimations, of the marvellous spiritual grasp of his nature and the hunger of his soul for truth and perfect life ; when we re-. member how he can love and hate and pity and forgive ; how he can hope and enjoy and suffer, we cannot escape the conviction that a larger sphere must somewhere be appointed him, in which to work out a grander destiny than he ever approaches in his brief and limited career upon this earth. We might possibly think that the great dramatic purpose of God needed for its fulfilment that the temporary flame that burns in human souls should forever die and disappear, and that it was our duty to be willing to yield up our lives, and sink into nothingness, if so, God might be better glorified, were it not for all we have learned to believe, not only of His love and sympathy for us, but of the divine relationship between His intelligence and ours. When we examine our own thought, which we believe to be His thought in us, and find what it has to say concerning justice and righteousness and the enduring power of love, we are sure He has not raised us up to love and hate and hunger and grope for light denied us, and in the height of the struggle to go down mocked and disappointed into everlasting unconsciousness. The soul, which is an effluence from Him, might at death, as many have believed, be swept back once more into Deity, if it were not that in projecting our souls into existence, He has chosen to give us each an identity as real as His own, and to make even the thought of non-existence as impossible to us as to Himself. We cannot think of ourselves as ceasing to exist. The effort to imagine ourselves dead, is always accompanied by the wider thought of ourselves as consciously alive to know that we are dead. We cannot get away from the belief in personal immortality, however we may try, or however loudly the voices of doubt and despondency within us may call to us to yield up our faith. And when to the revelation of eternal life given us by our own souls we add the calm and unwavering belief of Christ in the continuance of existence, we may well feel that but one answer can be given to the question so often and eagerly asked, " Does death end all ? " The immortality we desire and have a right to expect is more than the resumption of our souls back into Deity, more than the simple persistence of the life principle we possess through other forms of being, more than the mere immortality of our influence in the race, it is the continuance of conscious, personal existence for ever and ever.
The aged Victor Hugo expressed the confident belief of many of the maturest minds of the ages when he wrote:
"I feel in myself the future life. I am like a forest which has been more than once cut down. The new shoots are stronger and livelier than ever. I am rising, I know, toward the sky. The sunshine is on my head. The earth gives me its generous sap, but heaven lights me with the reflection of unknown worlds.
" You say the soul is nothing but the resultant of bodily powers. Why then is my soul the more luminous when my bodily powers begin to fail? Win-ter is on my head and eternal spring is in my heart. Then I breathe, at this hour, the fragrance of the lilacs, the violets, and the roses as at twenty years.
" The nearer I approach the end the plainer I hear around me the immortal symphonies of the worlds which invite me. It is marvellous yet simple. It is a fairy tale, and it is' history. For half a century I have been writing my thoughts in prose, verse, history, philosophy, drama, romance, tradition, satire, ode, song—I have tried all. But I feel that I have not said the thousandth part of what is in me.
"When I go down to the grave I can say, like so many others ` I have finished my day's work' ; but I cannot say ` I have finished my life.' My day's work will begin again the next morning. The tomb is not a blind alley ; it is a thoroughfare. It closes in the twilight to open with the dawn.
"I improve every hour because I love this world as my fatherland. My work is only a beginning. My monument is hardly above its foundation. I would be glad to see it mounting and mounting forever. The thirst for the infinite proves infinity."
The common belief of Calvinism, based on a literal view of certain passages of Scripture, was not only that at death people went on living, but that they went on living under certain fixed and unalterable conditions ; conditions of material bliss or woe that should be the same mil-lions of ages hence as they were the next moment after death. The two chief elements this doctrine contained, were the ideas of absolute stagnation of life in the world to come, and of endless duration. It is almost unnecessary to say that in whatever the New Testament says about the future life, the first of these ideas is not to be found at all, and the second, which Calvinism always made most prominent, is really incidental. Without discussing passages separately, it may be stated that Christ in all his discourses used the familiar language of Jewish theology to impress on people's minds the pro-found truths he desired to make them feel. When he spoke of heaven and hell, of Abraham's bosom and paradise, it was not to map out and localize the future for the Jews to whom he spoke, but to make them feel the supreme importance of the principles of righteousness. The Jews in his time had a certain sensuous imagery under which no doubt the most enlightened of them concealed their true thought, but which to the mass of the people was exactly descriptive of the reality of the future life. The primitive Hebrew belief seems to have been that the spirits of those who died went indiscriminately into sheol, a vast subterranean tomb—the underworld,—with barred and bolted gates, where they lay silent like corpses. If there were distinctions there, they were not moral, but national or social, and to that under-world Jehovah's reign was believed not to ex-tend. Thus the Psalmist says with true devotional feeling, and in protest against excluding God from any part of His universe : " If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there ; if I make my bed in hell, (sheol) behold thou art there." Later the belief seems to have grown up that from the dominion of death, the king of sheol, faithful Israelites should eventually be released, while the wicked and Gentiles should still be kept in the underworld. It was not until after the Exile, which terminated in the fifth century before Christ, that the belief grew up which seems to have become fully settled before Christ's time, that the unseen world comprised two distinct localities—a Paradise, and an Inferno, the gehenna of St. Matt. v., 22, 29, 30 ; x., 28 ; St. Mark ix., 43, 45, 47 ; St. Luke xii., 5 ; and a few other passages. In many places in the New Testament the word translated hell in the authorized version is the Greek word hades, which, like the Hebrew word sheol, means simply the under-world, and has no necessary connection with the thought of retribution.
The Book of Enoch, which originated in Palestine in the second century before Christ, and the second Book of Esdras (chap. ii., 19), describe Paradise as a restored Eden, where all is peace and prosperity, where there are mountains covered with lilies and roses, where milk and honey are plentiful, and as in the Revelation, trees perpetually bear delicious fruits. Another figure under which the Hebrews de-scribed Paradise was that of a banquet with the Patriarchs and Prophets,' where reclining on couches some might even lean their heads on Abraham's bosom, than which, to a faithful Jew, no honor could be greater, no bliss more perfect. Correspondingly dreadful was their language concerning the abode of woe. They named it gehenna, or the valley of the sons of Hinnom, because in that valley, just outside the city walls, the offal from the Temple sacrifices and all sorts of rubbish were made to feed a fire that rarely, if ever, was suffered to go out. It was the perpetual abode of corruption and fire, and its ghastly associations supplied terrible images by which to describe the condition and the place of lost spirits. Indeed, in the lapse of time, it came to be regarded as one of the mouths of the pit of destruction itself. This will throw light on some of the strongly figurative language of the New Testament concerning the future life : Jesus, as we have seen, spoke to his people in their own language ; their familiar religious rites and doctrines he did not assail, nor in enforcing truth upon them did he ignore their own metaphors. But it will be noticed that he uses Jewish figures only when talking to the Sanhedrin, or the High Priest, or Nathaniel, not when talking to the Roman governor, to whom Jewish figures would have had little meaning.
Thus we see the origin of certain opinions concerning the future life that have prevailed in the Christian Church. It is not necessary here to trace these in detail. According to the temper of theologians in the Early Church, and through the Middle Ages, belief in the future assumed a milder or more vindictive tone. Some believed in endless tortures for the wicked and endless bliss for the good; with some the hottest fires of perdition were re-served for morally wicked men, and with some, those whose thought deviated from established lines were to suffer the worst punishments. Some, like Origen, with a finer ethical sense and a truer belief in God, in the spirit of St. Paul' looked forward and prophesied the final triumph of righteousness and peace. In the Early Church, the doctrine of an Intermediate State between this world and the final heaven and hell was commonly taught, a doctrine which afterward in the Middle Ages held its place as a belief in Purgatory, whose cleansing fires should make it possible for some of the many millions who had died impenitent or unbaptized to be purified and so at last reach heaven. In the later Calvinistic belief there was no such merciful provision, the soul at death being received at once into unending bliss, or driven into unending woe. Taine says of the Puritans : " The feeling of the difference there is between good and evil had filled for them all time and space, and had become incarnate and expressed for them by such words as Heaven and Hell," and as one can see from the writings of such men as Jonathan Edwards, no palliation of the sufferings themselves, nor shortening of their duration, was felt to be possible for " sinners in the hands of an angry God."
Under all these gross, mistaken conceptions of the future we may discern, however, the true principles Christ taught ; of which our Church, rational and moderate, by her refusal in all her history to adopt the Calvinistic language, and her little interest in current disputes concerning the state of the departed, teaches us chiefly to think.
Heaven and hell are states of the soul, not places of arbitrary reward and punishment. Jesus taught nothing concerning the objective conditions of the life beyond ; he did teach that obedience to God's laws brings life and immortality, that disobedience brings death, which is the loss of light and power. In this world and all worlds, it was the mission of his life to teach, righteousness redeems the soul, lifting it to heights of knowledge and peace it has not known before, while sin narrows the life and works therein confusion and dismay. No word has been more common in Christian speech than the word salvation, and no word has been more mistakenly or at least unintelligently used. To be saved, means to be undergoing that process of growth in knowledge and goodness, that leads gradually onward toward the state—for man never attainable-of absolute perfection ; to be lost, means to be slowly falling away from light and truth, to be going downward not upward in the scale of being. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem and her unbelief, and bade the weary world before him drop its burdens and replace them with his easy yoke, or flee from wrath to come, he was not contemplating a lake of burning sulphur on the one hand and a paradise of sensual delight on the other, but rather the ruin of the moral nature, or the perfection of the life of man. With a power of spiritual vision that no other possessed, he looked into the soul of man and was filled with enthusiasm over its divine possibilities, or else with unutterable grief over its prophecies of ruin and decay ; and like all the greatest religious teachers, he sought to reveal to men the great unacknowledged fact of their sonhood of God, and so to make them conscious of the di-vine power within them by means of which they might rise superior to the limitations of sin and sense. His figurative language, which to later theologians seemed to imply that throughout unending ages men should remain just as this life left them, really implied endless expansion and growth. The word which in our authorized version is sometimes translated eternal, sometimes everlasting, contained, as Christ used it, far more and other than the mere notion of endlessness of time. Eternal life was the freedom from all limitations that the soul gains by increased consciousness of God ; eternal death was the loss of light and liberty, the narrowness and slavery of soul that comes when God is forgotten and His laws disobeyed. The essential idea in the word life is that of change : no living soul can stand still here or hereafter; nor in view of the instinctive belief in the triumphant power of goodness which has expressed itself in those passages of Scripture that speak of future redemption for the race, and the final conquest of the kingdoms of this world by God, and that every day finds expression in the devout hopefulness and cheerful prophecy of reverent minds, can we believe that sin and suffering are to go on in the universe forever.
Emerson quotes George Fox as saying : " There is an ocean of darkness and death, but withal an infinite ocean of light and love which flows over that of darkness," and this is the belief of healthy souls.
The problem of evil has always been regarded as insoluble on the theory of a perfect God, and yet may we not be approaching an explanation of it when we think of " imperfection as in some sort essential to all that we know of life. Sign of life in a mortal body, sign of a state of progress, of change" ?' Cardinal Newman says very significantly : " The laws of the universe, the principles of truth, the relation of one thing to another, their qualities and virtues, the order and harmony of the whole, all that exists is from God ; and if evil is not from Him, as assuredly it is not, this is because evil has no substance of its own, but is only the defect, excess, perversion, or corruption of that which has."' If, then, evil is the excess, negation, or wrong use of the good, its true corrective will be found, as in the universe, so in the individual life, in keeping all the factors of life in proper balance. To do less or more than law requires, to warp things from their proper uses, to give the lower the place of the higher, to make aims that are not the best life's chief aims, will assuredly result in evil. To observe the laws that God has affixed to the nature of things will redeem the world and all its conscious life from death and despair.
" 0 Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself," says the Prophet Hosea, speaking for God, " but in Me is thy help," and every soul in all the world that has learned that living for self means death, and living for God means life, has understood the double note of despondency and hope that sounds in the Prophet's words : " God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ." Righteousness is more deeply rooted in our natures than sin righteousness is our true life, sin is life's contradiction ; and it may be over-come. The Calvinistic view of man as naturally lost to God, may sometimes seem to be true, but it is not true. God's erring children may be lost to themselves, but they can never be lost to Him.
We have dwelt thus, at length, on the nature of salvation, because right views of eternal life and death, fulfilment and destruction, are at the bottom of all true conceptions of the future. We do not know what the conditions of the future will be, what new bodies we shall wear, what new homes we shall live in, what new employments we shall have ; we only know that life means growth and development, and that eternity means freedom from the limitations of time and sense. " Where will you be then ? " said some one once to Luther. " Under Heaven," he answered, and the words implied all that we mean when we talk about the impossibility of ever getting away from the divine presence, the divine love.
Our joys are shaded. The perfect smile be-longs to God alone. " Yet if, in other spheres, enlargement of spiritual life shall mean, as it must mean, the ever more and more perfect reflection in us of the perfect "smile" of God, all our vague dreams of Heaven shall be more than realized.
Hell is no longer to the enlightened Christian mind the gehenna of the Hebrews or the sulphureous lake of the Calvinistic creeds ; it is something far more terrible,—the corruption and narrowness and emptiness and loss of vital power of the retrograding soul.
Heaven is not pearls and flowers, and fruits and banquets, but something infinitely better and more to be desired,—enlargement of soul, light, and liberty, and love ; "That perfect presence of God's face which we for want of words call Heaven."
How shall we escape hell and gain Heaven? By following conscience and true self-love, which, as Bishop Butler says, " always lead the same way."
"Be docile to thine unseen Guide ;