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Lecture Seventh. The Lesson of Death and of the Death of Jesus.

The Idea of a Suffering and Dying Messiah — The Lesson of Death as interpreted by the Pantheists — The Lesson of Death as interpreted by Plato — Ambiguities in Plato's View — The lesson of Death as interpreted by Jesus — The Death of the Cross — Its Import and St. Paul's View of it.

IN the last lecture I attempted to indicate the main ideas which are contained in the teaching of Jesus according to the Synoptic Gospels. I attempted to show that there is a certain antithesis which runs through the life of Jesus, and which reaches its culmination and completion in his death—the antithesis, viz., between the kingdom of God as he conceived it, and that Messianic kingdom which was expected by the Jews. If a really tragic situation is one which contains conflicting elements, that cannot be brought to unity except by a collision which must he fatal to the representative of either or both of the interests involved, then there never was a more definitely tragic situation than that which is presented to us in the Gospels. For Jesus, whatever view we may otherwise take of his personality, was one who, by faithfulness to the best that was in Judaism, had been carried beyond Judaism. He had penetrated through the figurative language in which the Old Testament described the triumph of the true Israel over all its enemies, to the idea of a purely spiritual victory not over, but for, all men; a victory to be won not by the ‘striving and crying’ of selfish ambition, or by a sudden miraculous display of physical power, but by a method which was the very reverse of all this. It was to be won by shunning all assertion, whether of individual or of national egoism; by casting aside as useless all the weapons of earthly warfare with which men are armed against each other; by meeting hate with love, self-assertion with self-sacrifice, the claims of right with the abnegation of all right that is not an expression of duty. On this view there could be no glory superiority of one over another, except that of being his servant; no revenge of one upon another but that of heaping coals of fire upon his head by rendering good for evil; no joy of individual possession which did not begin with the consciousness that the individual derives everything that he has and is from God, and that he can possess it only as he gives it away.

Now it is easy to see that to ask the Jews to accept this as the essence of the Messianic kingdom—as the final triumph of the Jewish nationality over the world, and the last result of its long struggle against its enemies—was to bid that nationality ‘die to live.’ It was to tell it that it could be anything only if it lost itself in humanity, and made itself an organ of the universal life. It was to ask it to give up every exclusive claim or hope that it had cherished through the long years exile and oppression. Yet Jesus, filled with the new spirit of religion, could not but make the claim that this should be accepted as the realisation of the Messianic kingdom, and himself, its first preacher, as the true Messiah; or, as he expressed it—choosing the one Messianic name that suited him—as the Son of Man, who, in realising the ideal of the Jew, found that he was realising the idea of man, i.e. of a weak finite being whose life is nevertheless rooted in the infinite. Thus the acts and words of Jesus were a challenge to all that was sensuous in the ideas, and all that was selfish in the aspirations, of his time and nation. The saying which the Gospel of John puts into his mouth, “For judgment am I come into this world that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind,”1 may be the expression of later reflexion, but it exhibits the inmost nature of the crisis. The person and words of Jesus were a touchstone by which the baser and elements of Judaism were distinguished; by which the ‘wise and prudent,’ who were guided by expediency and not by truth, and who hid an inordinate worldly ambition under the disguise of a zeal for the cause of God, were divided from the ‘babes,’ whose minds were disinterestedly open to the new light. Hence the history, so far as we can trace it in the Gospels, is one of irritation and indignation on the part of the leaders of the Jewish nation, which continually increases with every new manifestation of the nature of the principles which Jesus represents and teaches; and which comes to a head when, on the basis of these principles, he makes the distinct assertion of his Messianic claims at Jerusalem; in other words, when he makes his final demand that his spiritual, because universal, kingdom of God should be substituted for the outward kingdom for which the Jews had been hoping. The accusation that Jesus said, “I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands,’2 whether it was literally true or not, indicates the point at which the offence became intolerable, i.e. just when Jesus began to make it clear that the whole Judaic system, with its outward ritual and ceremony, and all the beliefs and hopes connected therewith, must be swept away to make room for a system based upon a new spiritual foundation. Yet, on the other hand, we may observe that just this course of conduct, which excited against Jesus an immediate antagonism that could not be satisfied with anything but his destruction, was the very means necessary to make manifest the nature of his new principle and to enable it to triumph. The idyllic charm of the early Galilean preaching of Jesus to simple minds, who at a word were often ready to forsake all and follow the now Teacher, was necessary as the initiatory stage of the new religion. But the gospel of peace could not show its power till it had awakened the sword against it. The faith in a Father in heaven who is manifested in the life of man on earth, could not reveal its real meaning till, in the power of it, the Son of Man had shown himself able to meet all the sorrows that flesh is heir to, and all those which men can inflict upon each other. The lesson that by dying to himself man can live, and, indeed, that this is for him the only way to spiritual life, could not be taught except by one who made the last sacrifice of the natural life itself, and who, in making it, faced the utmost manifestation of evil passion in others. The death of Jesus was necessary to sum up and complete his life, as it was the final and conclusive exhibition of the principle of which he was the representative.

The idea that the true meaning of life is revealed only in death, is one that has haunted the mind of man in all ages; but the Christian interpretation of it has peculiarities which may usefully be illustrated by a comparison with some of the other forms in which it has presented itself. Sometimes it has taken the pantheistic form of the consciousness that the finite shows what it is as finite, only in passing away. In other words, the life of the finite, even from the beginning, has the principle of death in it; and all that it can do is just by passing away betray its own secret. But in thus betraying the secret of its illusiveness, it carries us beyond itself; for the transitory cannot be conceived except in relation to the enduring. The consciousness that grasps the illusiveness of life must have risen above death: it, in a sense, conquers death by making it an object of thought; for in order to contemplate the transitory by itself as an object, it must take its stand on the eternal. Hence, the pantheist, meditating on the finite and transitory nature of all things, often rises to a kind of passionless heroism, which escapes the fear of death just by recognising its universality. Discovering that the natural life is a process of dying which is concealed from the ordinary consciousness by various disguises, he seeks to withdraw from all such life as an illusion, that he may find rest in that which alone is, because it is eternal. All that death touches—and it touches everything finite—he can abstract from; he can let it drop as worthless, and so dying to the transitory and finite, he can live to the infinite and eternal.

The defect of this attitude of thought, in a religious point of view, is that the eternal to which it rises empty and abstract: at best, it is simply the general law which manifests itself in the endless chance of finite things, the necessity which reveals itself in their contingency. And the heroism which such a faith produces, is a fearless, but also a hopeless fatalism, which sets aside all feelings connected with that which perishes as empty and illusive, and accepts the necessity which it cannot escape. “All that fate takes away from me, I can dispense with; because I know that it is only to pass away; and to fix the mind of the affections on it, as if it were a enduring reality, were to deceive myself.” Thus the spirit or the pantheist may rise above finitude and look down upon it; but it does not understand what it has done, does not yet recognise that the being which is conscious of its finitude, must itself be more than merely finite; that it cannot really be bound to the passing existence from which it can thus ideally separate itself. And, on the other hand, the universal principle with which a self-conscious being can thus identify himself, cannot be a mere fate to which he, like other finite things is subjected, but must have a spiritual existence kindred with his own.

This second mode of reflexion, which tends, on the one hand, to link the thinking spirit of man with the universal and infinite, to which it raises itself; and, on the other hand, tends to substitute for the bare idea of a fate or general law to which all things and beings are subjected, the idea of a spiritual principle which through all the change and contingency of the passing finite world is realising an absolute good, we find for the first time clearly expressed in the Platonic philosophy. Plato, in other words, gives us a new reading of the maxim, “Die to live,” a reading in which the negative element still predominates, though not in the same exclusive sense as in the Indian Pantheism or Buddhism. For the universal, in which the particular is to be lost, is no longer conceived as an abstract substance or law of necessity, hut rather as a final cause or rational design which, as such, is not alien to the intelligence that recognises it. To give up the particular to the universal, to die to self, that we may live to God, is no longer a fatalistic acceptance of the extinction of the finite self in the gulf of necessity, but the surrender of our unreal natural existence, in order that the spiritual element in us may rise to a higher life. This is the lesson which Plato, taking his text from the death of Socrates, seeks to teach in the Phaedo. Philosophy is there represented as a ‘practice for death,’ because through death alone can true life be reached. And this practice Plato—so far agreeing with the Indian pantheists—conceives as consisting in a continued effort, by asceticism and abstraction to liberate the intelligence from the bonds of flesh in which it is bound. The natural life is the spirit's death, and it is declared, with a fanciful play of etymology, that the body (σω?μα) is its tomb (ση?μα).3 The true life is the death of death. Would it not then be folly for Socrates, who all his life has been practising for death, and, so far as might be, seeking to extinguish the natural life in himself, to wish to escape that which he has all along been pursuing? Rather he will welcome the hemlock as destroying the last thread that still binds the soul, and hinders its escape from the prison house. He has already, so far as in him lies, died to the illusory life of sense, which prevents the real life of thought from manifesting itself, and his acceptance of the cup of death is but the final act of courage necessary to set the immortal spirit free from the toils of mortality.

There has been much controversy as to what Plato really meant in the Phaedo, and especially whether he teaches the doctrine of an individual immortality. On the one hand, the process by which Plato represents the soul as rising to the universal life is rather a negative than a positive one: it is too like a mere ‘shuffling off the mortal coil,’ and it tells us what the life sought is not, rather than what it is. Farther, according to the usual interpretation of the Platonic doctrine of ideas, it points to a reality of the universal in which the particulars are lost, and not to one into which they are taken up as elements. On the other hand, it is quite clear that Pluto regards the soul of man as standing in an exceptional position among other things and beings. It is for him a particular being which yet is in possession of a universal life, and which, therefore, can survive the loss of all it has in common with other finite things and beings, and all that binds it to them as finite.4 Hence death is not death to it, as it is to them; but, in some sense, it is destined still to live in that universal life, to which it sacrifices or devotes itself. What positively this means to Plato, it is not quite easy to determine, so much is his last word on these subjects veiled in mythic forms. But this much we can see that, in Plato's view, man's life is rooted in the universal and the divine; that the eternal and the infinite is, so to speak, the presupposition of all his conscious existence; and that to awaken him to the ‘reminiscence’ of this primal fact, or, in other word, to bring it into clear consciousness as the first principle of all his thought and being, is the great aim of all intellectual culture. The highest object which man can propose to himself in this world is, therefore, to find his way back to the original spiritual unity from which he springs; and death itself, accepted as Socrates accepted it, may be regarded not merely as a natural event which puts an end to a natural existence, but as the culminating point in the life of a spiritual being, whose return upon himself is also a return to God. This, Plato not only teaches as an abstract doctrine, but he makes us realise it as a fact in the picture of Socrates, which he brings before us; in the lofty serenity of the philosopher, who regards death as the gate of life, and at the last moment, with a fine combination of humour and pathos, bids his friend offer for him the usual sacrifice to Asclepius for recovery from an illness, because he has at last found freedom from the ‘long disease’ of human existence.

Even here, however, we may recognise an essential imperfection in the Platonic view of death as the culmination of life. For, as he represents it in the Phaedo, the process seems to have no necessary relation to the end or result. The soul of man finds itself in this life banished from its native region shut into a prison of clay, buried in the body as in a tomb. Its awaking consciousness of the ideal and the divine is mythically represented as a recollection of its prenatal glories; and it is called upon to make it the supreme aim of life to free itself from the load of clay that hinders it from knowing its true nature—

“Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But while this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”

The soul struggles in the darkness and confusion of sense to reawaken the consciousness of the divine which it has lost; it seeks by a discipline of abstraction and ascetic self-restraint to remove the scales from its eyes; and it accepts death as a final liberation from the illusion of life. But, as there seems to be no reason why the soul should have been thus obstructed or obscured by the finite conditions into which it is brought, so the effort to escape these conditions is, at least as represented in the Phaedo, merely negative, merely the putting away of an external hindrance. It is not made manifest that the obstruction is itself necessary to the life it obstructs, or is in any way a condition of its development. Still less is there any attempt to prove that the natural existence which appears at first as an obstruction a hindrance to be overcome by the spirit, itself furnishes the material for the new spiritual life; so that, if in one sense it has to be destroyed or consumed, in another sense it has to be restored and reconstructed in that life. If, therefore, according to the philosophy of the Phaedo, the death of nature is conceived as making way for the life of spirit, and if in this sense death may be the very crown and culmination of life, when it is accepted as the final step in the purifying and liberating process; yet it cannot be said either (1) Unit death subserves positively the life it makes room for, or (2) that there is any survival or restoration of that which dies in the new existence reached through its death. If Socrates dies that he may live, yet it is not made clear to us that his death positively manifests the new life, or directly affords us any clue to its characteristics. And as little can we say that that in him which dies, dies to live again.

Now, in both these points of view a new conception of life, and of death as its culmination, seems to arise in connection with the life and death of Jesus as represented in the Gospels. For, in the first place, Jesus does not appear at any time to admit that conception of the absolute opposition between the universal and the particular, the spiritual and the natural, which Plato maintains in the Phaedo, and from which he never quite freed himself. Starting with the idea of a Divine Father, who has revealed Himself in the natural world and in the natural existence of man, Jesus could not think of the spiritual development of man as consisting simply in his freeing himself from the bonds of nature. The defect of man's condition did not for him lie in the mere presence of the natural life in a being essentially spiritual; but only in this, that the natural life does not acknowledge a spiritual as its presupposition and its limit. It is not that man is a subject, who as finite stands in relation to finite objects, and finds in them the ends of his activity: it is that the consciousness of self and the consciousness of the objective world are not brought into definite relation with the idea of God which underlies them, and hence, that the satisfaction of the self in these finite ends is not subordinate to, or made the expression of, the divine end and idea. And because it is not thus subordinated, two results follow. In the first place, the satisfaction of man is contingent and transitory, dependent on his relation to objects in an external world which he cannot, except partially, subject to his purposes, and which, even so far as he does so subject them, are exposed to the law whereby all finite things decay and pass away. His realisation of himself, in this point of view, is the realisation of a being who is doomed to die in things which perish with the using. In the second place, the ends in which he seeks the realisation of himself, as they are not determined by the universal principle in relation to which all individuals are at one, are ends for him which are not ends for others. Hence he can carry them out only in conflict with others, only in a struggle for existence in which he must suffer and inflict the utmost evils, and in which, even if temporarily victorious, he must ultimately be defeated. For the self that has not surrendered itself to God, or, in other words, has not recognised itself as the organ of a universal principle, has an egoism that is capable of infinite extension; and the necessary collision of such infinite claims is the cause of a war without truce and without end, in which everyone, as in bis natural being he is still finite, must finally be beaten. That suffering and that evil prevail in the world is the necessary result of these two things. For suffering is just the result of the limitation of finite existences by the law to which they are subjected, as parts of a greater whole. And evil lies mainly in the collision of natural beings, who, as also spiritual, are rival selves, each with an infinite claim to satisfaction as against the others.

According to this view, then, man is at war with the world which does not satisfy his craving for happiness, and with his fellowmen who are his rivals in the pursuit of it not because he is a natural being, but because he is a spiritual being in a natural form. For it is a consequence of this that the universality of the principle of his life at first shows itself mainly in the exaggeration of his natural claims,—in a self-seeking which rebels against the limits of nature, and breaks out into murderous hate other men. And, so long as this inversion of the true relation of the infinite to the finite remains, even the religious instinct is apt to take the perverse form of the belief in a God whose function is mainly to fulfil the demands of selfish desire and ambition, to overcome the antagonism of nature, and put the feet of his favourites on the necks of their enemies. Now, the teaching of Jesus as represented in the Gospels simply inverts all the ways of natural self-seeking. It puts the universal before the particular, the spiritual before the natural, God before self; and in doing so, Jesus claims, like Plato, to be simply restoring the primitive order of man's life, or carrying back human life to that which is its presupposition. But he does not dualistically oppose this principle to the principle of the natural life, or assert that salvation and happiness are only to be found in getting rid of that life. On the contrary, he holds to the idea that the postponement of natural to spiritual good is the way, and the only way, whereby the natural good itself can be secured; or, in other words, that the natural good is lost, when it is put first. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”5 Thus the restoration of the natural ends of life through their negation is not only possible, but it is the only possible way whereby they can be realised at all. In a similar spirit, Jesus calls upon his disciples not to seek good for themselves as against their fellowmen, but rather than that, to surrender all that is claimed by them, even the most obvious rights of person and property. “If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also”6 But this refusal to claim anything for themselves as individuals, he does not advocate on the ground that his disciples as such have no rights, or that their individual existence is simply to be lost in the universal. On the contrary, he teaches that each individual has the highest personal worth as a ‘son of God,’ and that he has, or rather has conferred upon him, a title not only to the kingdom of heaven, but also to the inheritance of the earth. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Yet this title man cannot immediately realise as a natural being, but only through the development of the spiritual life in him; in other words, it is not his, as one who stands up for his individual interest and honour as against others, but as one who has made himself the instrument of the universal life which he has in common with them. Hence the immediate renunciation of his rights, the immediate refusal to stand against his fellows in the selfish struggle, is not merely one possible way of taking their lives into his own, and making them the instruments his own highest life; but it is the only way in which they can cease to be his enemies or rivals and become his helpers and associates in the pursuit of a good which is common to all.

Now it is easy to see that here also, as in the case of the Platonic Socrates, the path of death is the path of life; and that here also, in order to point the lesson, it is necessary that the path should be pursued to the end, to the extreme point of natural death, undergone in maintaining the spiritual principle. But the Platonic idea of a mere escape from the natural and the finite is altogether set aside. What is now sought is not escape but conquest; not a riddance from the illusive power of the finite, but a recognition that it is a good, only as the manifestation of a still greater good. “Heartily know,” says Emerson, “when the half-gods go, the gods arrive.” It is in a like spirit that Jesus declares that he who gives up anything for the service of God and the good of man will receive an hundred-fold. His own life also, cutting himself loose, as he did, from all the immediate good of life and even from the ties of kindred and home, in order to find everything in the new bond of brotherhood which he had founded,7 was a practical demonstration of this principle. And his death, coming as it did, as the natural result of his renunciation, not merely of all individual ambition for himself, but also of the national life and the national hopes of the Jews, was the final manifestation of his faith, that the renunciation of every natural good for that which is spiritual, contains in itself the promise, not only of the spiritual good that is sought, but also of every natural good as flowing from it.

Again, if we look at the principle of Jesus in the other aspect, and consider his absolute rejection of all antagonistic self-seeking, whether it be the self- seeking of the individual for himself, or of the nation for itself, we come to the same result. The grown hostility to Jesus of all those whose life was bound up with any of these forms of self-seeking, was just the natural result of his renunciation of them all both in his actions and his words, and it was the appropriate test of its genuineness. Only as against hate could the conquering power of love be manifested; and the utmost expression of hate was just the means of such manifestation. The faith that broke down all the divisions between men's lives, and taught them to regard themselves as the children of one Father, necessarily awakened against it every interest that was attached to such divisions; and it was a moral necessity that the individual who had challenged these forces in virtue of such a faith, should conquer them only by showing that it could sustain him against them even to the death. In this sense it may be admitted that his death has become the life of the world; for it was the culminating expression of the principle out of which its true life springs.

We learn thus to look upon the death of Jesus not merely as the accidental fate of goodness in conflict with evil, as the natural fruit of Jewish bigotry and Roman indifference; nor, again, as an external interference of divine benevolence with the ordinary course of human existence; but as the highest revelation of the divine life in man in conflict with the evil of the world. In this sense the Cross may be regarded as the necessary tragic solution of a conflict of principles, the necessary issue which the new faith required to manifest itself and conquer the forces that opposed it. The saying, that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” has here a special application. In all ages the act of sealing the truth with the blood of the preacher has had an effect on the minds of men that seems disproportionate to its importance as an event. He who turns that, which most men receive passively as a fate inflicted on them by nature, into a supreme act of will, and surrenders his life as a sacrifice to some cause or idea, gives a kind of universal value to the individual life he thus sacrifices. He binds his personality to the idea for which he has died by a bond that is not easily unloosed, and, at the same time, he gives to the idea itself a personal attractiveness which it wanted so long as it was not thus embodied. The life of Socrates, devoted as it was to the purpose of placing ethics on a universal foundation, could scarcely have had the world-wide influence it has had, if his death had not shown how entirely he had detached his moral being from the semi-naturalistic basis of national custom on which morality had hitherto rested, how firmly he had based it anew on the rational self-consciousness of the individual. But, in a still more direct way, the death of Jesus was the summing up and culminating expression of the principle of his life, both in its negative and its positive aspects. In its negative aspect, it was the death of one who was the first representative of the universal principle of religion; and it was a death directly brought upon him by his opposition to those who identified that principle with the exclusive claim of a particular nation. The completion of the sacrifice of the individual was just the act by which the supremacy of the universal principle could be shown; and, therefore, the act which could alone give it its conquering power, its power to stir the hearts of men and draw them out of their selfish prejudices and national or social limitations. Hence, on the positive side, it was the first conclusive manifestation of a charity which made no reservation, and which, just because it recognised no possible hindrances or limitations to its outflow in the antagonism of others, was powerful enough to break down all such antagonism, and to originate a new life of brotherhood for all men. The death of Jesus was thus, it might be said, the first clear demonstration that the idea of a Universal God which underlies all religion is not merely the abstract idea of an infinite Being in which everything finite is merged and lost, but that it is a productive principle which can restore out of itself all, and more than all, it seems to take away.

I have gone thus far to show the way in which the ethical meaning of Christ's life and teaching culminates in his death, because it partly explains the exclusive prominence given by St. Paul to that death and all that is associated with it, and thus enables us to bridge over the gulf between the simple humanity of the Synoptic narrative and the theological idealism, as we may call it, which in his epistles. St. Paul, we must remember, stood at some distance from the facts of the life of Jesus, and for that very reason, perhaps, he was in a better position to estimate their general meaning than those whose minds were occupied with details. In fact, we may say that for St. Paul these facts were lost in the one fact of Christ's death, and that he apprehended that fact not in itself, but entirely as the manifestation of a spiritual principle. And the nature of that principle is just what we have already explained. Instead of a conquering Messiah, who should realise the kingdom of God on earth by force, by giving to his chosen people the rule over all nations, St. Paul sees Jesus as, indeed, the Messiah, the great deliverer who had fulfilled the hopes of Israel; but as a Messiah who had realised these hopes in just the opposite way to that which the Jews had expected—not by self-exaltation but by self-humiliation, not by using his power to crush antagonism, but by divesting himself of all outward power so that he might conquer by the weapons of the spirit and by them alone. He was, in a word, one who sought to overcome all opposition only by bearing its utmost expression; who deprived others of the power of standing against him by refusing to stand against them; and who acted on the principle that when man lays down his arms, God himself fights for him; or, in other words, that he who has no interest but the universal, has omnipotence on his side.8 On this view, he who has ceased to have enemies, deprives those who call themselves his enemies of all their power; nay, he irresistibly wins them over to himself. They may spend all their fury upon him, but they cannot resist the voice of heaven that speaks to them from the grave of their victim. This is the one thought which runs through the epistles of St. Paul in which the lesson of Jesus, ‘Die to live’—the lesson which in the life of Jesus had been expressed in the simple characters of human action and human suffering, human love contending with human hate, and overcoming it by its deeper strength and self-consistency—is, as it were, lifted into the region of universal though, and expressed in the large letters of a comprehensive theory of God's dealings with the world and with man.

  • 1. John ix. 39.
  • 2. Mark xiv. 58.
  • 3. This derivation is given in the Cratylus, 400 C.
  • 4. This seems to be the force of the last argument in the Phaedo, 105 seq. Cf. Republic, 609 seq.
  • 5. Matt. vi. 33.
  • 6. Matt. v. 40.
  • 7. “Who are my mother and my brethren?” Matt. xii, 48; Mark iii. 31, cf. 21; Luke viii. 19.
  • 8. Cf. Browning's Instans Tyrannus.