The moral and spiritual life of man imperatively demands that allowance should be made for its distinctive quality in any estimate of the nature of ultimate reality. This life—so alien in many respects from the processes of nature in all other known departments—calls for explanation. The ultimate reality must be such as to account for its occurrence. By this and other kindred reflections we were led to the assertion that the governing principle of reality is a living and righteous God. But the argument will not let us stop there; for man’s moral and spiritual life is in this world a baffled and thwarted enterprise; and the scene of our endeavour is slowly becoming uninhabitable, so that even though men labour for a remote posterity, yet if this life only is permitted them, it will one day make no difference whether we have striven or not for noble causes and lofty ideals. An earth as cold as the moon will revolve about a dying sun. Duty and love will have lost their meaning. The President of the Immortals, if there be either immortals or president, will have finished his sport with man. And how shall the argument which posited the righteousness of that same Potentate allow us to rest in any such connexion? Moreover the worst has not been told. For we have seen that values even of past events may alter, and the value of a whole process depends upon the order of its episodes. A drama which starts in sunshine and ends in gloom has not the same quality in respect of optimism or pessimism as one that starts in gloom and ends in sunshine, though the average tone of the scenes taken separately may be identical; the drama with a descending scale, so to speak, conveys a sense of even deeper gloom than one that is in the bass register throughout. If at the end there is to be nothing but cold dead cosmos—which might as well be chaos—then, though their presence shines like a jewel in the prevailing gloom, yet it were more creditable to the Determiner of Destiny that virtue and love had never bloomed. That they should appear to be discarded makes the ultimate principle of reality more ruthlessly non-moral than if it had never given birth to them at all. On that hypothesis virtue itself is a blot on the escutcheon of the Ruler of the universe and heroism is His deepest shame.
Further, we have seen when considering the action of divine grace upon the soul that if its operation be limited to the space of this mortal life, it cannot escape censure for such favouritism as to deny the justice and the love of God.1 And if divine Providence is exposed to such condemnation in its dealings with individuals, it is no more successful in its ordering of human history as a whole. That too is meaningless “if in this life only we have hope”.2 Every consideration of serious importance intensifies the urgency of the moral demand for at least the possibility of life after the death of the body. Yet there has never been a period in which there was so little positive belief in this, or indeed so widespread an absence of concern for the whole subject. Probably this is due to the forms in which the idea has traditionally been presented rather than to any lack of compelling attraction in the idea itself or its intrinsic claims upon the attention of mankind; but it is also due to the triumphs of science which have made this world so intensely interesting.
It is, indeed, not easy to estimate the place which the idea of Immortality now holds in the actual religion of English people. Certainly it is nothing like so prominent as it has been in most previous ages of Christian history. And so far as it plays a part, it is a very different part. Here as in other departments of life we find ourselves at the end of a period of reaction from the Middle Ages. The mediaeval scheme is entirely intelligible in its broad outlines. Universal immortality is assumed; for those who are beyond pardon there is Hell; for those who are pardonable, Purgatory; for those whose pardon is accomplished, Paradise. And alongside of these, for the unawakened soul there is Limbo. The scheme presents certain administrative difficulties. It involves, in practice, the drawing of a sharp line between the awakened and the unawakened soul, and again between the pardonable and the unpardonable. But unless it be held—as in fact I find myself driven to hold—that these difficulties are insoluble in principle, it may be urged that they are soluble to omniscience, which, ex hypothesi, is available for the purpose.
There are many of us, however, to whom the difficulty mentioned is so overwhelming as to make the whole scheme unreal, however water-tight it may be dialectically. And I have not hesitated to speak of it in terms which indicate that sense of unreality. For the human soul is at once too delicately complex, and too closely unified, to be dealt with by any method of classification into mutually exclusive groups. And how can there be Paradise for any while there is Hell, conceived as unending torment, for some? Each supposedly damned soul was born into the world as a mother’s child, and Paradise cannot be Paradise for her if her child is in such a Hell. The scheme is unworkable in practice even by omniscience, and moreover it offends against the deepest Christian sentiments.
But this is a very modern reaction to it. What happened at the Reformation was entirely different. The doctrine of Purgatory was the focus of many grave abuses—sales of Indulgences and the like. These called for remedy, and thus set moving the normal method of the Reformers—the method of referring whatever was found to call for remedy to the touchstone of Scripture. And Scripture was thought to supply no basis for a doctrine of Purgatory. So the doctrine was not freed from its abuses but was eliminated, and the Protestant world was left with the stark alternatives of Heaven and Hell.
Now the mediaeval scheme, being easily intelligible as a theory, however difficult in practice, had great homiletic value. It presented vividly to the imagination the vitally important truth of the “abiding consequences” of our actions and of the characters that we form. And this homiletic value was if anything increased at first through the simplification effected by the Reformers. There, plain before all men, was the terrible alternative. Only by faith in Christ could a man be delivered from certain torment in Hell to the unending bliss of Heaven; but by that faith he could have assurance, full and complete, of his deliverance; and that faith would be fruitful in his life and character.
But there was much to set upon the other side. The new form of the scheme gave a new prominence to Hell, and whereas the popular mind in the Middle Ages was mainly concerned with Purgatory and with ways of shortening or mitigating its cleansing pains, it was now Hell that alone supplied the deterrent influence arising from belief in a future life. And this, while it lasted, reacted on the conception of God. For, in the long run, punishment which is unending is plainly retributive only; it may have a deterrent use while this life lasts, but from the Day of Judgment onwards it would lose that quality; and it obviously has no reformative aim. Now it requires much ingenuity to save from the charge of vindictiveness a character which inflicts forever a punishment which can be no other than retributive. Certainly the popular conception of God in many Protestant circles became almost purely vindictive. We can read in the protests of such writers as Shelley and Byron what sort of picture of God had been impressed on their imaginations.
Is there a God? Ay, an almighty God,
And vengeful as almighty. Once His voice
Was heard on earth; earth shuddered at the sound;
The fiery-visaged firmament expressed
Abhorrence, and the grave of Nature yawned
To swallow all the dauntless and the good
That dared to hurl defiance at His throne
Girt as it was with power.3
No doubt Shelley was in violent reaction, and misrepresented by exaggeration what he had been taught, in addition to using the irony of indignation in order to satirize it. Yet a caricature depends for its force on maintaining some resemblance to what it ridicules. And there are sermons of the eighteenth century which go far to justify the poet’s indignant contempt.
But such conceptions could not permanently survive in the minds of people who read the Gospels. Steadily the conviction gained ground that if God is rightly conceived as the Father of Jesus Christ, in whom His character is disclosed, He cannot be conceived as inflicting on any soul that He has made unending torment. So Hell has in effect been banished from popular belief; and as Purgatory had been banished long before, we are left with a very widespread sentimental notion that all persons who die are forthwith in Paradise or Heaven. And this seems to involve a conception of God as so genially tolerant as to be morally indifferent, and converts the belief in immortality from a moral stimulant to a moral narcotic. There is a very strong case for thinking out the whole subject again in as complete independence as possible alike of mediaeval and of Protestant traditions. The reaction from the Middle Ages here as elsewhere has worked itself out.
It has often been pointed out that in the religious experience of Israel the hope of immortality is of late origin. In the earlier times there was an expectation of a shadowy existence in Sheol; but it was not a hope. “O spare me a little that I may recover my strength, before I go hence and be no more seen” is a prayer as far removed as possible from either the later Jewish or the Christian faith in the life to come. The hope of immortality as we understand it only dawned when faith in God as One and as Righteous was already firmly established. Those who believe in the providential guidance of Israel’s spiritual growth will at once seek a divine purpose in this order of development; but those who start with no such presupposition may quite well trace a value in it which has permanent importance.
The great aim of all true religion is to transfer the centre of interest and concern from self to God. Until the doctrine of God in its main elements is really established, it would be definitely dangerous to reach a developed doctrine of immortality. Even when the doctrine of God is established in its Christian form, the doctrine of immortality can still, as experience abundantly shows, perpetuate self-centredness in the spiritual life. If my main concern in relation to things eternal is to be with the question what is going to become of me, it might be better that I should have no hope of immortality at all, so that at least as I look forward into the vista of the ages my Self should not be a possible object of primary interest.
For as in order of historical development, so also in order of spiritual value, the hope of immortality is strictly dependent on and subordinate to faith in God. If God is righteous—still more, if God is Love—immortality follows as a consequence. He made me; He loves me; He will not let me perish, so long as there is in me anything that He can love. And that is a wholesome reflection for me if, but only if, the result is that I give greater glory to God in the first place, and take comfort to myself only, if at all, in the second place. I wish to stress this heavily. Except as an implicate in the righteousness and love of God, immortality is not a religious interest at all. It has an interest for us as beings who cling to life, but there is nothing religious about that. It has an interest for us as social beings who love our friends and desire to meet again those who have died before us; that is an interest capable of religious value, but even this is not religious in itself. No; the centre of all true religious interest is God, and self comes into it not as a primary concern which God must serve, but as that one thing which each can offer for the glory of God. And if it were so, that His Glory could best be served by my annihilation—so be it.
But in fact God is known to us through His dealings with us. And if He left us to perish with hopes frustrated and purposes unaccomplished, He could scarcely be—certainly we could not know Him to be—perfect love. Thus the hope of immortality is of quite primary importance when regarded both doctrinally and emotionally as a part of, because a necessary consequence of, faith in God. There is here a stupendous paradox; but it is the paradox which is characteristic of all true religion. We must spiritually renounce all other loves for love of God or at least so hold them in subordination to this that we are ready to forgo them for its sake; yet when we find God, or, rather, when we know ourselves as found of Him, we find in and with Him all the loves which for His sake we had forgone. If my desire is first for future life for myself, or even first for reunion with those whom I have loved and lost, then the doctrine of immortality may do me positive harm by fixing me in that self-concern or in concern for my own joy in my friends. But if my desire is first for God’s glory, and for myself that I may be used to promote it, then the doctrine of immortality will give me new heart in the assurance that what here must be a very imperfect service may be made perfect hereafter, that my love of friends may be one more manifestation of the overflowing Love Divine, and that God may be seen as perfect Love in the eternal fellowship of love to which He calls us.
For these reasons it seems to me, so far as I can judge, positively undesirable that there should be experimental proof of man’s survival of death. For this would bring the hope of immortality into the area of purely intellectual apprehension. It might or might not encourage the belief that God exists; it would certainly, as I think, make very much harder the essential business of faith, which is the transference of the centre of interest and concern from self to God. If such knowledge comes, it must be accepted, and we must try to use it for good and not for evil. And I could never urge the cessation of enquiry in any direction; I cannot ask that so-called Psychical Research should cease. But I confess I hope that such research will continue to issue in such dubious results as are all that I am able to trace to it.
When we turn from the relation of this doctrine to Religion and consider its relation to Ethics we are confronted with a different but, as it were, parallel paradox. The expectation of rewards and punishments in a future life has certainly played a considerable part in disciplining the wayward wills of men. And of this as of other discipline it is true that there may grow up under it a habit of mind which afterwards persists independently of it. But so far as conduct is governed by hope of rewards or fear of punishments as commonly understood, it is less than fully moral. We are probably agreed in rejecting the extreme austerity of the doctrine often, though unfairly, attributed to Kant,4 that the presence of pleasure in association with an action is enough to destroy its moral character; but even more probably we shall agree that if an act is done for the sake of resultant pleasure or profit of the agent, so that apart from that pleasure or profit it would not be done, it is not a truly moral act. Consequently the ethical utility of Heaven and Hell, conceived as reward and punishment, is disciplinary and preparatory only. So far as true moral character is established, whether with or without their aid in the process, it becomes independent of their support and will only be injured by reference to them.
Moreover, the utility of Hell, so conceived, is very early exhausted, even if it be not from the outset over-weighed by disadvantages. For in Ethics as in Religion the fundamental aim is to remove Self from the centre of interest and concern. But fear is the most completely self-centred of all emotions, and to curb irregularity of conduct by constant use of fear may easily make this aim harder of attainment than it was at the outset. It is probably good for most people to have an occasional shock of fright with reference to their shortcomings; but there is no doubt that to live under the constant pressure of fear—in the sense of anxiety concerning one’s self—is deeply demoralising.
It is notorious that Kant, while excluding hope of profit from the motives of a truly moral act, yet found himself bound to postulate immortality as a means of securing that adjustment of goodness and happiness which he considered Reason to demand. I believe this line of argument to be substantially sound. But if it is, then we find that the hope of immortality is wholesome as an implicate in an independently established morality, though if introduced earlier it may hinder as much as help the establishment of that morality, just as it has high value as an implicate in faith in God, though if introduced earlier it may hinder as much as help the establishment of such faith.
In the light of such considerations we may proceed to form some estimate of that doctrine of the future life which properly belongs to our own religious tradition. This will involve our first disentangling the authentic teaching of the classical Scriptures from accretions which very quickly began to obscure this. We shall not assume that whatever those Scriptures teach must be true; that is a question for the theologian of Christianity as a positive religion. But the deliverances of the classical period of Christianity constitute important data for Natural Theology. The authentic Christian doctrine has three special characteristics:
(a) It is a doctrine, not of Immortality, but of Resurrection.
(b) It regards this Resurrection as an act and gift of God, not an inherent right of the human soul as such.
(c) It is not so much a doctrine of rewards and punishments, as the proclamation of the inherent joy of love and the inherent misery of selfishness.
(a) The Christian doctrine is a doctrine not of Immortality but of Resurrection. The difference is profound. The method of all non-Christian systems is to seek an escape from the evils and misery of life. Christianity seeks no escape, but accepts these at their worst, and makes them the material of its triumphant joy. That is the special significance in this connexion of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Stoics teach an indifference to death; the Gospel teaches victory over it. Richard Lewis Nettleship said our aim should be to reach a frame of mind in which we should pass through the episode of physical death without being so much as aware of it.5 That is a splendid utterance; and yet it implies a detachment from wholesome interests and from the intercourse of friends which is a little inhuman. Surely it is true that death is a fearful calamity—in itself; and as such the Gospel accepts it; there is no minimizing of its terrors. Only its sting—its very real sting—is drawn; only its victory—its very real victory—is converted into the triumph of its victim. It is one thing to say that there is no real tragedy in the normal course of human life; it is quite another thing to acknowledge the tragedy and then to claim that it is transmuted into glory.
We lose very much if we equate with a doctrine of mere survival this hope of transformation, of resurrection whole and entire in all that may pertain to fullness of life, into a new order of being. Incidentally this glorious hope coheres with a totally different conception of the relation of Time or History to Eternity; for it both clothes History with an eternal significance, and at the same time points to a conception of Eternity as something much more than the totality of Time; and Time becomes not so much the “moving image of Eternity” as a subordinate and essentially preparatory moment in the eternal Reality, in the manner that was outlined in the previous Lecture.
(b) The Christian conception of the life to come as a gift of God has affinities with the Platonic doctrine of Immortality. Plato had sought to demonstrate the inherent immortality of the individual soul. In the Phaedo he fashioned an argument which seems for the moment to have satisfied him. But in fact it is invalid. What Plato proves in the Phaedo is that the soul cannot both be, “and be dead”; he does not prove that it cannot pass out of existence altogether.6 In the Republic he advances an argument of which the minor premise seems to be simply untrue. He says that what perishes does so by its own defect; but the essential disease of the soul—injustice—does not cause, or tend towards, the decay of the soul; therefore the soul is imperishable.7 But there is every reason to deny the second proposition. When once the essential nature of the soul as self-motion is established, it is at least open to question whether injustice is not a negation of that quality. No doubt the wicked man may display great activity; so may metal filings in the proximity of a magnet; that does not mean that they are endowed with self-motion.
It is in the Phaedrus that Plato first reaches the clear conception of the soul as characterised essentially by self-motion, and argues from this its indestructibility.8 But not each individual soul is completely self-moved, and the argument, supposing it to be valid, as I think it is, only establishes the indestructibility of the spiritual principle in the universe, not the immortality of each individual soul. Plato seems to have accepted that result, for in the Timaeus he declares that only God is immortal in His own right, and that He of His bounty bestows on individual souls an immortality which is not theirs by nature.9
That this is the prevailing doctrine of the New Testament seems to me beyond question as soon as we approach its books free from the Hellenistic assumption that each soul is inherently immortal in virtue of its nature as soul. That is a view which is increasingly hard to reconcile with psychology. I do not claim that in the New Testament there is a single doctrine everywhere accepted; on the contrary it seems to me that here and there a relapse into the Hellenistic point of view may be detected. But its prevailing doctrine, as I think, is that God alone is immortal, being in His own Nature eternal; and that He offers immortality to men not universally but conditionally. Certainly we come very near to a direct assertion of the first part of this position in the description of God as “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of them that reign as kings, and Lord of them that rule as lords, who only hath immortality” (1 Tim. vi. 16). The only approach to an argument for a future life of which Jesus Himself makes use is based on the relationship of God to the soul; “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto Him” (Luke xx. 38). And in close connexion with this saying in the Lucan version are the words, “they that are accounted worthy to attain to that world and the resurrection from the dead” (Luke xx. 35). It is in consonance with this that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is constantly spoken of throughout the New Testament as the act of God Himself. No doubt St. Paul explicitly states that “We must all be made manifest before the judgement seat of Christ” (2 Cor. v. 10), but that settles nothing, unless we make, with some followers of “psychical research”, the entirely unwarrantable assumption that the survival of physical death is the same thing as immortality.10 Quite clearly it is not; for a man might survive the death of his body only to enter then upon a process of slow or rapid annihilation. And St. Paul elsewhere declares that he follows the Christian scale of virtues “if that by any means I might attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. iii. 3).
Are there not, however, many passages which speak of the endless torment of the lost? No; as far as my knowledge goes there is none at all. There are sayings which speak of being cast into undying fire. But if we do not approach these with the presupposition that what is thus cast in is indestructible, we shall get the impression, not that it will burn for ever, but that it will be destroyed. And so far as the difficulty is connected with the terms “eternal” or “everlasting”, as in Matt. xxvi. 46 (“eternal punishment”) it must be remembered that the Greek word used is
But the stress in the New Testament is all laid upon the quality of the life to come and the conditions of inheriting eternal life. It does not call men to a mere survival of death while they remain very much what they were before, but to a resurrection to a new order of being, of which the chief characteristic is fellowship with God. Consequently the quality of the life to which we are called is determined by the Christian doctrine of God.
What is abundantly clear throughout the New Testament is its solemn insistence upon what Baron von Hügel spoke of as “abiding consequences”;. Language is strained and all the imagery of apocalypse employed to enforce the truth that a child’s choice between right and wrong matters more than the courses of the stars. Whatever is done bears fruit for ever; whatever a man does, to all eternity he is the man who did that. Moreover, evil-doing entails for the evil-doer calamity hereafter if not also here, while for him who gives himself to the will of God there is stored up joy unspeakable.
Further, there can be no question that Christ was prepared to use a certain appeal to self-interest to reinforce the claims of righteousness: “It is good for the to enter into life with one eye rather than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire” (Matt. xviii. 8). But these passages are mostly connected with cases where loyalty to righteousness involves some great sacrifice or self-mortification; they are not so much direct appeals to self-interest as counter-weights to the self-interest that might hinder the sacrifice or mortification required. And the positive invitation to discipleship is never based on self-interest. He never says, “If any man will come after Me, I will deliver him from the pains of hell and give him the joys of heaven”. He calls men to take up their cross and share His sacrifice. To those who are weary and heavy laden there is the promise of rest; but the general invitation is to heroic enterprise involving readiness for the completest self-sacrifice, and concern for the mere saving of the soul is condemned as a sure way of losing it.11
The Gospel is a call to fellowship with Christ, in whom it bids us see the eternal God. The call is to fellowship with Love, complete and perfect in its self-giving. How weak is the lure which this offers to our selfish instincts! There is in the Gospel a warning that the way of self-will leads to destruction, so that prudence itself counsels avoidance of it. But when we turn to seek another way there is none that commends itself to prudence only. For the reward that is offered is one that a selfish man would not enjoy. Heaven, which is fellowship with God, is only joy for those to whom love is the supreme treasure. Indeed, objectively regarded, Heaven and Hell may well be identical. Each is the realisation that Man is utterly subject to the purpose of Another—of God who is Love. To the godly and unselfish soul that is joy unspeakable; to the selfish soul it is a misery against which he rebels in vain. Heaven and Hell are the two extreme terms of our possible reactions to the Gospel of the Love of God. “This is the judgement, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light” (John iii. 19). “This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, Jesus, as Christ” (John xvii. 3).
The Natural Theologian is not directly concerned with the claim made by Christians that in Jesus of Nazareth God has fully revealed His character. But he is very much concerned to consider with what conception of the future life that claim coheres, and how this is related to his general conclusions. Before we attempt any summary exposition of our results in this connexion it will be convenient to take up here the question how far our understanding of human nature has indicated any possibility that the self can survive physical death. That the moral and spiritual interests of man are bound up with such survival we have already seen. And if eternal life is always the gift of God and neither a natural property of human nature nor a necessary consequence of a certain degree of moral achievement, the believer in God might be content to refer the question of possibility to the divine omnipotence. But a theory which calls for such special and peculiar divine action as may reasonably be called miracle at a point where without such action the theory must be utterly discredited is on very precarious ground. If God has created beings of such sort that their destiny can only be fulfilled in eternity, it is likely that their nature gives evidence of their capacity to survive an episode to which every one of them must come.
We turn back once more to the characteristic of mind which first and most completely distinguishes it from whatever does not share its nature. This is its formation of “free ideas” whereby it detaches itself from the course of the natural process and enters upon a realm of its own, where its conduct is determined, not by the impulsion of force, but by the apparent good. The mind of a human being increasingly organises itself and its own world apart from the processes which, for the most part, control the body within which, and (at first) as a function of which, the mind has come into being. As mind increasingly takes control of the organism, so it becomes increasingly independent of the organism as physiologically conceived. A man may be so absorbed in thought as to become insensitive to occurrences that would usually occasion severe pain. In some such cases a degree of detachment is achieved which would have antecedently been pronounced by fully competent judges to be impossible. The greater the capacity for concentration of attention, the more complete does this detachment become; but every person who is ever conscious of obligation illustrates the vital principle of it. For obligation is not a calculation of the interests of the organism and of the way to serve these; it is an appreciation of value so distinct as to demand the sacrifice of all other interests for its sake. The mind which has achieved that is detached from “the whole might of nature”. Duty and freedom have visited it together, for these are, as Kant perceived, inseparably correlated with one another.
But free ideas are not ideas which have no counterpart in physical experience. They have their origin in that experience. The spiritually minded man does not differ from the materially minded man chiefly in thinking about different things, but in thinking about the same things differently. It is possible to think materially about God, and spiritually about food. Hence the possibility of superstitions like that of Loretto on the one hand and of true mysteries like that of the Eucharist on the other. Consequently the ideal attainment of human nature would be a lifting of the physiological organism itself to the status of a free vehicle of the completely spiritual mind. But short of that there is at least indicated the possibility of life for the mind in independence of the physiological functions of the organism. Man is not in his own nature immortal, but he is capax immortalitatis.
If, with this background to our enquiry, we try to bring together the various indications which our argument has supplied, we find it possible to give some definite shape to the resultant conception of the future life.
God has created us as children of His love, able to understand that love in some degree and to respond to it. In the psycho-physical organism of human personality there is the possibility for a development of the spiritual elements, in response to and communion with the eternal God, which makes these capable of receiving from God the gift of His own immortality. Unless there has been such degeneration that only animal life continues to exist, it must be presumed that this possibility remains; and as it is hardly conceivable that any human being descends altogether to the level of the animal during this mortal life, it is further to be presumed that every personality survives bodily death. But that is not the same as to attain to immortality. And here we are confronted with a dilemma, which we must expect to remain insoluble so long as we have available only those data which are afforded by experience on this side of death. On the one hand is the supreme significance of free human personality, that is of will as determined by its own apparent good, which seems to involve the possibility for every soul that it may utterly and finally reject the love of God; and this must involve it in perdition. God must assuredly abolish sin; and if the sinner so sinks himself in his sin as to become truly identified with it, God must destroy him also. And this destruction is no painless swooning out of existence. The complacent sinner need not hope for that. Evil is a principle of division. The soul which is altogether evil would be one which cannot find itself even in its own nature; it is torn with an agony of self-diremption and perishes in a torture of moral insanity. That possibility remains for man as a free personality. On the other hand this result is failure on the part of God; for though He asserts His supremacy by destruction of the wicked, yet such victory is in fact defeat. For He has no pleasure in the death of him that dieth. The love which expressed itself in our creation can find no satisfaction in our annihilation, and we are prompted by faith in God’s almighty love to believe, not in the total destruction of the wicked, but rather in some
sad obscure sequestered state
Where God unmakes but to remake the soul
He else first made in vain; which must not be.12
As I have said, I do not think the dilemma can be resolved by us here on earth. But while I am now by no means confident, I will offer what slender hope of a solution to the difficulty I am able to entertain.
There is one condition on which our conduct can be both free and externally determined. It is found wherever a man acts in a certain way in order to give pleasure to one whom he loves. Such acts are free in the fullest degree; yet their content is wholly determined by the pleasure of the person loved. Above all do we feel free when our love goes out in answer to love shown to us.
Now the Grace of God is His love made known and active upon and within us; and our response to it is both entirely free and entirely due to the activity of His love towards us. All that we could contribute of our own would be the resistance of our self-will. It is just this which love breaks down, and in so doing does not override our freedom but rather calls it into exercise. There is, therefore, no necessary contradiction in principle between asserting the full measure of human freedom and believing that in the end the Grace of God will win its way with every human heart.
But this must be interpreted in the light of a doctrine of “abiding consequences”, to use once more von Hügel’s favourite phrase. Every consideration of reason and of justice requires this. Whenever I act, however light-heartedly, to the end of all the ages I am the person who then acted thus. Nothing can alter that fact; and while its value can be altered, it can never be the same as the value of some other action. Reason, with its insistence on coherence, allows no escape here. If I allow myself to become set in self-centredness the love of God can only reach me through the pain that causes or results from the break-up of that self-centredness; and when it has found me, and stirred my penitence, and won me to forgiveness, I am still the forgiven sinner, not the always loyal child of God. And this general truth has application to every act of moral choice.
Justice makes the same demand. It is not reasonable that if a man lives like a devil he should be permitted to die like a dog. Survival of physical death would be required if only to ensure that spiritual death were other than merely animal decease. And if we refuse to believe that God ever so far fails as to be under moral necessity to extinguish the light of spiritual life which He has kindled, yet by one means or another the soul must be led to appreciate the sinfulness of its sin as the only Condition of really transforming its value by making it the occasion for penitence and for the appropriation of the redemption offered by divine Love.
Again, because God is Love, the universe is so ordered that self-seeking issues in calamity. Thus we are warned that even when judged from its own standpoint self-seeking is unprofitable. But while mercy in this way gives to selfishness the only warning it is capable of heeding, there is no way offered of avoiding the calamity while the selfishness remains. The fear of future pain or of destruction may stimulate a man for his own self’s sake to seek salvation; but the only salvation that exists or can exist is one that he can never find while he seeks it for his own self’s sake. The warning is a warning that while he remains the sort of man he is, there is no hope for him; it is a call, not merely to a grudging change of conduct for fear of worse or hope of better; it is a call to a change of heart which can only exist so far as it is not grudging but willing. Thus it is a call for surrender to that Grace of God which alone can effect such a change of heart. It is Love that keeps aflame the hell of fire to warn us that in selfishness there is no satisfaction even for self; and Love then calls the soul which heeds that warning to submit itself to the moulding influences of Love by which it may be transformed; and the promise of a joy which only those who are transformed into the likeness of Love can know, while to others it is the very misery from which they seek deliverance.
On such conditions it is possible to hold without demoralising consequences the hope which alone coheres with the faith in Almighty Love—the hope that in eternity every soul which God has made shall thank Him for every title of its experience. Sufferers and sinners as we are, at least we are at liberty to hope that we shall one day recognise in our suffering and even in our sin some further occasion for the glory of that divine love, which enables those who suffer to make their pains the means to self-conquest and makes of sin the occasion of its own self-sacrifice. At long last, we may hope, every sinner—even Judas Iscariot and every traitor with him—shall be so purged of self-concern by the very shame which his offence has caused to that same self-concern, that he in utter humility will thank God that his vileness has become a further occasion of the divine triumph.13 And if in entertaining such a hope we are passing beyond what any argument can be said to warrant, at least in such a view as has been outlined there is neither the demoralising influence of a shallow optimism which says, “Never mind; it will all come right in the end”, nor the equally demoralising influence of a terrorism which stereotypes self-centredness by undue excitation of fear. There is an appeal to self-concern in those who can heed no other, but it is an appeal to leave all self-concern behind. Again there is no promise for the future which can encourage any soul to become forgetful of God, for the promise is of fellowship with God, and therein, but only therein, of fellowship also with those whom we have loved. It is an austere doctrine, more full of the exigency than of the consolations of religion, though it offers these also in gracious abundance to all who submit to its demands, for to be drawn into fellowship with God is to find that the Communion of Saints is a reality. And the core of the doctrine is this: Man is not immortal by nature or of right; but he is capable of immortality and there is offered to him resurrection from the dead and life eternal if he will receive it from God and on God’s terms. There is nothing arbitrary in that offer or in those terms, for God is perfect Wisdom and perfect Love. But Man, the creature and helpless sinner, cannot attain to eternal life unless he gives himself to God, the Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, and receives from Him both worthiness for life eternal and with that worthiness eternal life—for indeed that worthiness and that life are not two things, but one.
- 1. Lecture XV.
- 2. See 1 Corinthians xv. 19 and Lecture XVI.
- 3. Shelley, Queen Mab.
- 4. Cf. Webb, Kant’s Philosophy of Religion, pp. 96–99. I owe the reference to Canon Quick.
- 5. Philosophical Remains, p. 95.
- 6. Phaedo, 103 B–106 E.
- 7. Republic, 608 D–611 B.
- 8. Phaedrus 245 C-E.
- 9. Timaeus, 41 A, B. But in the Laws it is still held that each soul is immortal: e.g. 959 b.
- 10. But it may be a “lapse into Hellenism”.
- 11. St. Mark viii. 35.
- 12. The Pope in Browning’s The Ring and the Book.
- 13. Cf. Dante, Paradiso, ix. 103–105.