To the Edition of 1884
The enlightened reader will bear with the seeming arrogance of the title. It is a proposition—not an invective. The question proposed for consideration is a question for critical investigation. Attention is invited to the evidence and the argument. They are strictly within the logical sphere. They can be examined and dismissed if found wanting. What the title affirms is that Christendom, the ostensible repository of revealed truth, is away from that truth.
In reality the title goes further than this. By implication, it asserts certain things to be the truth that are not accepted by Christendom. It offers the proof of the doctrines that are according to truth, as the best demonstration that Christendom is astray from those doctrines. The demonstration is by the Holy Scriptures. To these Christendom is professedly subject, and it is in the light of these (estimated as Christendom estimates them, viz., as divine writings) that the question is considered throughout. It cannot be an unacceptable thing to earnest believers in the Bible to have it debated whether their conceptions of duty and destiny are according to the Bible. This is what is done in the following lectures.
This is not the first time the lectures have appeared. They first saw the light under the name Twelve Lectures, many years ago (Feb., 1862). They came out then in fortnightly parts (one lecture per fortnight) in response to the demand of those who had heard of them. The lectures themselves were in the first instance delivered in Huddersfield in discharge of an individual duty on the part of the lecturer. Since then many thousands of copies have been circulated. The author little imagined at the time he wrote them, that any such fate was in store for them. He wrote them for delivery only, and supposed their work was done when a small Huddersfield audience had heard them. As a matter of fact they have revolutionised the religious convictions of great numbers of people, of which fact much written evidence has appeared in the pages of the monthly Christadelphian during the past sixty years and more.
It will be found upon investigation that the Bible is no more responsible for the views and tenets of Christendom than it is for Mormonism. It propounds a system of doctrine which is compatible with all the evidences of sense, as systemised in the material sciences of the ages, and which at the same time commends itself to the moral instincts of every fully developed mind, as supplying those links, in the absence of which, the human understanding is baffled in its attempts to fathom the mysteries of existence.
Lecture 16 discusses the prophetic bearings of current political events. The result is to show that the times appointed for Gentile ascendency are all either run out, or on the point of running out in the present age of the world. The state of affairs is shown to confirm this conclusion of chronology. Prophetic anticipations have been realised in a way that leaves no doubt of the correctness of the deductions. From the outbreak of European revolution, in 1848, to the British occupation of Egypt, in 1882, and the commencement of the Jewish colonisation of Palestine (on however small a scale), there has been an unbroken series of expected signs of the Lord’s approach. The only point of failure has been as to the place in the programme at which the Lord’s appearing would occur, and this is a failure not of the prophetic word, but of human estimate of probability. It seemed likely that the ending of Papal coercive power would be the time for the Lord to appear. The ending of the Papal coercive power came at the expected time, but not the Lord, and because of this, the thoughtless cry “failure.” True failure there has not been; on the contrary, prophetic expectations that were truly warranted have in all particulars been realised in a very wonderful manner.
Parallel cases in ancient Bible times indicate the nature of the present situation. In the case of the Exodus, Israel left Egypt thirty years after the expiry of the period (of 400 years) specified as the duration of Israel’s sojourning in the land of the stranger. In the case of the restoration from Babylon, it was not accomplished till a generation after the period (70 years) fixed as the duration of their captivity. But in both these cases, events tending to the development of the foretold results SIGNALISED THE EXACT ENDING OF THE PERIOD. In the case of the Exodus, Moses, who was fifty years of age at the end of the 400, had appeared on the scene, and “supposed his brethren would have understood how that God, by his hand, would deliver them” (Acts 7:25). In the case of the restoration from Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar’s dynasty was overthrown by Darius, who belonged to a people favourable to Israel.
In the present case, all we need look for in this respect is transpiring before our eyes. The events prophetically characteristic of the termination of the “times of the Gentiles,” are the facts of contemporary history. Papal ascendancy is at an end in the world of politics, secular and ecclesiastical. The nations are “angry,” and wars and rumours of wars are the order of the day. The Zionist movement among the Jews proclaims the imminence of the national resurrection foretold by the prophets, and therefore heralds also the resurrection of the dead.
Of the exact date of the Lord’s appearing we have no information. We are in the era of that wonderful event, and it may be the occurrence of any day; but “of that day and hour knoweth no man.” We are in the position the disciples occupied in relation to the day of God’s judgment on Jerusalem; we wait in a state of indefinite expectancy, knowing that the event looked for is near, even at the door; but not knowing exactly how long.
The truth developed in a complete form is rapidly creating a people for the name of the Lord at his return. Such a work is a necessary prelude to the advent. The apostolic testimony gives us to understand that Jesus finds a people alive at his coming. Hence, their development is a necessity of the end. It is meet that Christ should have a people contemporary with the developments of the end.
At his coming in the flesh, John the Baptist, by preaching, gathered from Israel a select people, to whom in due course Christ was manifested by the descent of the Holy Spirit, and by means of whom in their ultimate operations, he proclaimed the way of life to the world, vanquished paganism, and enthroned his name traditionally in the high places of the earth. His coming in the Spirit draws near: a people is in preparation, increasing in numbers, faith, zeal, and service, to whom, when their development has reached a certain point, he will be revealed, with the thousands whom he shall bring from the dead by his power. May reader and writer alike have the supreme happiness of being included in their glorious number.
(The author of “Christendom Astray” died in 1898.)
“Christendom Astray” was first published as “Twelve Lectures on the Teaching of the Bible” in 1862. In the intervening 103 years a number of editions have been made available to assist earnest men and women in their search for The Truth.
The author, Robert Roberts, of Huddersfield, England, had single objective—to promote the personal study of the Holy Scriptures, with a view to salvation. This present edition will assist in promoting the author’s original intention.
In Lecture 2 the erroneous doctrine of the immortality of the soul is shown to be contrary to Nature and Revelation. Some of the arguments are those which were necessary in 1862 against the then-current philosophical arguments. In noting with interest how the author stood against the philosophical arguments of his day, the reader will learn a valuable lesson. The same Bible which stood against philosophical arguments a century ago, is still mighty to stand against the modern philosophical arguments advanced against the Bible today. The ground of the contention has altered, but the principle is the same—human reasoning exalting itself against Divine revelation.
In a different category is Lecture 16 entitled “Times and Signs: or the evidence that the end is near”. In this lecture, Robert Roberts wrote in 1862, after reviewing certain chronological arguments:
“ … if this is so, there wants about forty-four years to complete the 6,000 years of the great world-week, and therefore we are that number of years from the time when the blessing of Abraham shall prevail o’er the whole world through Christ. But we are not, therefore, that number of years from the advent. This may happen within the next twelve months. The coming of Christ is one event; the setting up of the kingdom another.”
His anticipation of the return of Christ at that time, and the establishment of the Kingdom by 1906, was incorrect. The question becomes: “Should an error of this nature be preserved in the present edition, or left out?” Who can answer a question of this nature better than the author himself? In the Preface to the Fifth Edition, Robert Roberts stated:
“The prophetic-chronological conclusions of lecture 11(A) are allowed to appear unaltered, although the state of facts in this year, 1869, would seem to stultify them. The fact is that events have verified them, and brought us to the era of the advent. A.D. 1866 has been signalised by epochal events characteristic of the termination of the Little Horn period, though it has not brought the consummation. The mistake was m expecting the occurrence of the advent and resurrection immediately 1866 was attained …”
Robert Roberts did not hesitate to retain a point on which he was open to challenge, because he was well aware that a discerning mind would appreciate the general argument advanced, and be able to press on in personal study.
The lecture in question is a valuable section of this book. It will give the reader an insight into principles to be applied in order to understand the prophecies of the Bible. It deals with the great time periods of the Bible. It details much of the history of Europe essential to an understanding of the development of prophecy through a period of nearly 2,000 years. It pinpoints the position of the Catholic Church in Bible prophecy, in a clear and forthright manner. Events are outlined concerning the last-days activities of Turkey, Russia and the Jews, leading up to the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The author of Christendom Astray was greatly assisted in his understanding of the Bible by the writings of his predecessor, John Thomas. The study of the Bible on the part of John Thomas revealed to him also that Christendom was astray from the Scriptures. He set down the results of his research in a book entitled Elpis Israel (or The Hope of Israel) being “an exposition of the Kingdom of God.” The book, which is a standard work of the Christadelphians, expounds both Bible doctrine and prophecy in a manner that reveals that the latter does predict the future with certainty, and that when it is correctly expounded, can be completely relied upon. Consider the following statements made in the year 1848:
Concerning the Jews
“There is, then, a partial and primary restoration of the Jews before the advent of Christ, which is to serve as the nucleus, or basis, of future operations in the restoration of the rest of the tribes after he has appeared in the kingdom. The pre-adventual colonisation of Palestine will be on purely political principles; and the Jewish colonists will return in unbelief of the Messiahship of Jesus, and of the truth as it is in him. They will emigrate thither as agriculturists and traders, in the hope of ultimately establishing their commonwealth, but more immediately of getting rich in silver and gold by commerce with India, and in cattle and goods by their industry at home under the efficient protection of the British power” (Elpis Israel, pp. 395/6—3rd. Edition, printed 1859).
This statement, based upon Bible prophecy, has been remarkably fulfilled. A partial restoration of Jewry has taken place, the nation of Israel has come into existence, and Britain was a prime mover in accomplishing this.
“As I have said elsewhere, the Lion-power will not interest itself in behalf of the subjects of God’s kingdom, from pure generosity, piety towards God, or love of Israel; but upon the principles which actuate all the governments of the world—upon those, namely, of the lust of dominion, self-preservation, and self-aggrandisement. God, who rules the world, and marks out the bounds of habitation for the nations, will make Britain a gainer by the transaction. He will bring her rulers to see the desirableness of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba, which they will be induced, by the force of circumstances, probably, to take possession of. They will, however, before the battle of Armageddon, be compelled to retreat from Egypt and Ethiopia …” (p. 398).
Following World War 1 (seventy years after the above statement was written) Britain was granted a mandate over Palestine, and sponsored the establishment there of a national home for the Jews. Since that time, and developing out of that movement, the nation of Israel came into existence. It is all in fulfilment of Bible prophecy, as the above writer clearly showed.
In the Preface to the 3rd. Edition of Elpis Israel (p. 21), the author wrote:
“Russia’s mission is to reduce all the nations of the Old World, save Britain and her dependencies, into one imperial dominion represented in the book of Daniel by the Image of Nebuchadnezzar. Licentiousness will again break loose, and in the mêlée the Austro-Papal empire will succumb; the contest will end in the discomfiture of the Continent and Russia, like a mighty inundation, will overflow the nations, and dash her waves upon their shores, from the Danish Belts to the Dardanelles. Britain will rage, and shake the world with her thunder; but, as in the days of Napoleon, her alliance will be fatal to them that trust her, and only precipitate their fall.”
Again (p. 13):
“When Russia makes its grand move for the building up of its image-empire, then let the reader know that the end of all things as at present constituted, is at hand. The long expected, but stealthy advent of the King of Israel, will be on the eve of becoming a fact; and salvation will be to those, who not only looked for it, but have trimmed their lamps by believing the gospel of the kingdom unto the obedience of faith, and the perfection thereof in ‘fruits meet for repentance.’ ”
There is much more in this book in similar vein, not only in regard to the nations mentioned above, but the world in general; and the fulfilment of these anticipations clearly reveals that the Bible is true, and its prophecies certain of fulfilment.
Robert Roberts made a mistake in setting a date for the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, because the Bible clearly states: “of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32). There are time periods set down in the Bible, but they do not reveal that date, and the fact that Robert Roberts made a mistake in regard to them only serves to underline the importance for every reader of Christendom Astray to turn to the Bible himself for confirmation of the matters set before him. Let him do this, and he will be led into all truth, and rejoice in the knowledge of God’s plan of salvation, and His future purpose to send back Jesus Christ to this earth, that he might establish therein the universal Kingdom over which he will reign (Acts 1:11; Daniel 2:44; Zechariah 14:9). There is a “day appointed” for this glorious and wonderful event (Acts 17:31), and the signs of the times show that it is near at hand, for “at the set time,” “when the Lord shall build up Zion, He shall appear in His glory” (Psalm 102:13, 16).
The Bible—What It is, and How to Interpret It
“The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine.… They shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Tim. 4:3, 4).
“Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
“There shall be false teachers among you … and many shall follow their pernicious ways, by reason of whom, the way of truth shall be evil spoken of” (II Pet. 2:1, 2).
“Try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).
“Their word will eat as doth a canker” (II Tim. 2:17).
“All nations deceived” (Rev. 18:23).
“TO THE LAW AND TO THE TESTIMONY: IF THEY SPEAK NOT ACCORDING TO THIS WORD, IT IS BECAUSE THERE IS NO LIGHT IN THEM” (Isaiah 8:20).
That Christendom is astray from the system of doctrine and practice established by the labours of the apostles in the first century, is recognised by men of very different ways of thinking. The unbeliever asserts it without fear; the church partisan admits it without shame, and all sorts of middle men are of opinion that it would be a misfortune were it otherwise. The unbeliever, while himself rejoicing in the fact, uses it as a reproach to those who profess to follow the apostles whom he openly rejects; the churchman, while owning the apostles as the foundation, regards it as the inevitable result of the spiritual prerogative vested in “the church,” that there should be further unfoldings of light and truth leading away from the primitive form of things; and the moderate and indifferent class accept it as a necessary and welcome result of the advance of the times, with which they think the original apostolic institution has become inconsistent.
Is there not another meaning to the fact? To such as have confidence in the Bible as a divine record, the quotations standing at the head of this chapter must suggest a view of the present state of things very different from that entertained by the common run of religious professors. Do not these quotations require us to believe that it was in the apostolic foresight (a foresight imparted to them by that presence of the Holy Spirit which Jesus before his departure promised he would secure for them during Iris absence—John 14:7; 16:13)—that the time coming was a time of departure from what they preached—when men indulging in “fables” and walking in “pernicious ways,” would wholly turn aside from the saving institutions of the gospel delivered by them, and realise the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy as to the state of things upon earth just before the manifestation of God’s glory at the appearing of Christ, viz., that “darkness should cover the earth and gross darkness the people”? (Isa. 60:2). Such a view may bring lamentable conclusions, and be fruitful of personal embarrassments in a state of society where a man cannot prosper unless he fall down and worship the current “doxy.” But an earnest mind will not be debarred by such considerations from the investigation of a momentous topic. “What is the truth?” is the engrossing question of men of this type, and they follow wherever the answer may lead them, even “to prison and death,” if that were possible in our age.
We propose this investigation in the following lectures. Such subjects have been supposed to pertain exclusively to the clerical province. Obviously, it is not a likely theme for a clergyman to discuss whether the whole system of clericalism itself be not a departure from Bible truth. It is not one which he is specially fitted to consider. And, in point of fact, it is more and more generally conceded that questions of Bible truth are matters of non-professional understanding and concern. Nothing but an untrammelled individual knowledge of the Bible will satisfy the earnest curiosity that would know what the truth is amid the intellectual turmoils, questionings and collisions of modern times. If the Bible is God’s voice to every man that has ears to hear (which it demonstrably is), it is for every man by himself, and for himself, to seek to understand it, and to extend the benefit he may have received.
Qualification for this is not a question of “ordination”: it comes with enlightenment. And not only qualification, but obligation comes with this enlightenment. As soon as a man understands and believes the gospel, he is bound to lend himself as an instrument for its diffusion. The command is direct from the mouth of the Lord Jesus himself: “Let him that heareth say, COME” (Rev. 22:17); the example of the early Christians affords unmistakable illustration of the meaning of the command (Acts 8:1–4). Tradition clings to “holy orders.” Of these we hear nothing in the Scripture. Apostolic teaching inculcates the common-sense view that the truth of God is designed to make propagandists of all who receive it.
The subject of this afternoon’s lecture is the natural starting point of all endeavours to ascertain what the Bible teaches. We want to know what the Bible is in itself, and on what principles it is to be understood. On the first of these points, we must take a good deal for granted. We shall assume throughout these lectures that the Bible is a book of Divine authorship. Our present duty is simply to look at the structure and character of the Bible as a book appearing before us with a professedly divine character taken for granted. Looking at it in this way, we first discover that the Bible consists in reality of a number of books written at different times by different authors. It opens with five, familiarly known as the “five books of Moses,” a history written by Moses, of matters and transactions in which he performed a leading personal part. This history occupies a position of first importance. It lays the basis of all that follows. Commencing with an account of the creation and peopling of the earth, it chiefly treats of the origin and experience of the Jewish nation, of whom Moses says, “The Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto Himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth” (Deut. 14:2). The five books also contain the laws (very elaborately stated), which God delivered by the hand of Moses, for the constitution and guidance of the nation.
It has become fashionable, under various learned sanctions, to question the authenticity of these books, while admitting the possible genuineness of the remaining portions of the Sacred Record. Without attempting to discuss the question, we may remark that it is impossible to reconcile this attitude with allegiance to Christ. You cannot reject Moses while accepting Christ. Christ endorsed the writings of Moses. He said to the Jews by the mouth of Abraham in parable: “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them; if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:29, 31). It is also recorded that when he appeared incognito to two of his disciples after his resurrection, “beginning at MOSES and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Further, he said, “Had ye believed Moses; ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But IF YE BELIEVE NOT HIS WRITINGS, HOW SHALL YE BELIEVE MY WORDS?” (John 5:46, 47). If Christ was divine, this sanction of the Pentateuch by him settles the question; if the Pentateuch is a fiction, Christ was a deceiver, whether consciously or otherwise. There is no middle ground. Moses and Christ stand or fall together.
The next twelve books present the history of the Jews during a period of several centuries, involving the development of the mind of God to the extent to which that was unfolded in the message prophetically addressed to the people in the several stages of their history. This gives them more than a historical value. They exhibit and illustrate divine principles of action, while furnishing an accurate account of the proceedings of a nation which was itself a monument of divine work on the earth, and the repository of divine revelation. The book of Job is no exception as to divinity of character. It does not, however, pertain to Israel nationally. It is a record of divine dealings with a Son of God, at a time when that nation had no existence. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, are the inspired writings of two of Israel’s most illustrious kings—writings in which natural genius is supplemented with preternatural spirit-impulse, in consequence of which the writings so produced are reflections of divine wisdom, and by no means of merely human origin. This is proved by Christ’s declarations in the New Testament.
In the books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, we are presented with a most important department of “Holy Writ.” In these seventeen books—respectively bearing the names of the writers—we find recorded a multitudinous variety of messages transmitted from the Deity to the “prophets,” for the correction and enlightenment of Israel. These messages are valuable beyond all conception. They contain information concerning God otherwise inaccessible, and instructions as to acceptable character and conduct, otherwise unobtainable; in addition to which they have a transcendent value from their disclosure of God’s purpose in the future, in which we naturally have the highest interest, but of which, naturally, we are in the greatest and most helpless ignorance.
Coming to the New Testament, we are furnished in the first four books with a history which has no parallel in the range of literature. The Messiah promised in the prophets, appointed of God to deliver our suffering race from all the calamities in which it is involved, appears: and here are recorded His doings and His sayings, What wonderful deeds! What wonderful words! We are constrained in the reading to exclaim with the disciples on the sea of Galilee: “What manner of man is this?” He entrusted his apostles with a mission to the world at large. In the Acts of the Apostles we have made plain to us in a practical way, what Christ intended them to do as affecting ourselves. In the same book we have the proceedings of the primitive Christians, written for our guidance as to the real import of the commandments of Christ, and the real scope and nature of the work of Christ among men. The remainder of the New Testament is made up of a series of epistles, addressed by the inspired apostles to various Christian communities, after they had been organised by the apostolic labours. These letters contain practical instruction in regard to the character which Christians ought to cultivate, and in a general and incidental way illustrate the higher aspects of the truth as it is in Jesus. Without these epistles, we should not have been able to comprehend the Christian system in its entirety. Their absence would have been a great blank; and we in this remote age should hardly have been able to lay hold on eternal life.
Such is a scant outline of the book we call “the Bible.” Composed of many books, it is yet one volume, complete and consistent with itself in all its parts, presenting this singular literary spectacle, that while written by men in every situation of life—from the king to the shepherd—and scattered over many centuries in its composition, it is pervaded by absolute unity of spirit and identity of principle. This is unaccountable on the hypothesis of a human authorship. No similarly miscellaneous production is like it in this respect. Heterogeneousness, and not uniformity, characterises any collection of human writings of the ordinary sort, even if belonging to the same age. But here is a book written by forty authors, living in different ages, without possible concert or collusion, producing a book which in all its parts is pervaded by one spirit, one doctrine, one design, and by an air of sublime authority which is its peculiar characteristic. Such a book is a literary miracle. It is impossible to account for its existence upon ordinary principles. The futile attempts of various classes of unbelievers is evidence of this. On its own principles it is accounted for God spoke to, and by, its authors “at sundry times and in divers manners.” This is no mere profession on the part of the writers. It is shewn to be a true profession not only of the character of the book and the fulfilment of its prophecies, but by the fact that nearly all the writers sealed their testimony with their own blood, after a life of submission to every kind of disadvantage—“trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonments; were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword, wandered about in sheep skins and goat skins, in deserts and mountains; in dens and caves of the earth—being destitute, afflicted, tormented” (Heb. 11:36–38). To suppose the Bible to be human is to raise insurmountable difficulties, and to do violence to every reasonable probability. The only truly rational theory of the book is that supplied by itself. “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). In this we find an explanation of the whole matter. The presence of one supreme guiding mind, inspiring and controlling the utterances of the authors, completely accounts for their agreement of teaching throughout, and for the exalted nature of their doctrines: on any other supposition the book is a riddle, which must ever puzzle and bewilder the mind that earnestly faces all the facts of the case.
There are, unfortunately, those who hold the book in contempt as a priestly imposture. There are few who do so as the result of individual investigation. It is the result of writings which are not careful about facts, or scrupulous in the use they make of them. The result is lamentable to those deceived. They reject the only book which can possibly be a revelation from the Deity, and they throw away their only chance of immortality; for surely if there be a book on earth that contains the revealed will of God, that book is the Jewish Bible; and if there be a possibility of deliverance from the evils of this life—the corruptibility of our physical organisation, the weakness of our moral powers, the essential badness of a great portion of the race, the misconstruction of the social fabric, the bad government of the world—that possibility is made known to us in this book, and brought within our reach by it. By his rejection of the Bible, the unbeliever sacrifices an immense present advantage. He deprives himself of the consolations that come with the Bible’s declarations of God’s love for man. He loses the comfort of its glorious promises, which have such power to cheer the mind in distress. He cuts himself away from all the moral heroism which they impart; he sacrifices the abiding support which they give; the soul-elevating teaching which they contain; the noble affection they engender; the solace they afford in time of trouble; the strength they give in the hour of temptation; the nobleness and interest which they throw around a frittering mortal life. And what does he get in exchange? Nothing, unless it be licence to feel himself his own master for a few mortal years, to sink at last comfortless and despairing into the jaws of a remorseless and eternal grave!
The effect of the Bible is to make the man who studies it, better, happier and wiser. It is vain for the leaders of unbelief to assert the contrary; all facts are against them. To say that it is immoral in its tendencies, is to propound a theory, and not to speak in harmony with the most palpable of facts. To declare that it makes men unhappy, is to speak against the truth; the tormented experience of the orthodox hallucinated is no argument to the contrary, when it becomes manifest, as it will in the course of these lectures, that the Bible is no ways responsible for these hallucinations. To parade the history of unrighteous government and tyrannical priest-craft in support of such propositions, is to betray either ignorance or shallowness or malice. Many are deluded by such a line of argument, and have the misfortune, in many instances, to become conscientiously impressed with the idea that the Bible is an imposture. Such are objects of pity; in the majority of instances they are hopelessly wedded to their view.
It does not come within the scope of the present lecture to deal with the vexed but settleable question of Bible authenticity. Sufficient now to remark that the person who is not convinced by the moral evidence presented to his understanding on a calm and independent study of the Holy Scriptures, in conjunction with the historical evidences of the facts which constitute the basis of its literary structure, is not likely to be altered in his persuasion by elaborate argument. The plan of trying to show what it teaches, and thereby commending it to every man’s sober judgment, will be found the most profitable. Here it may be well to notice an aspect of the question not often taken into account in the discussions which frequently take place on the subject.
The modern tendency to disbelieve the Bible must be traceable to some cause. Where shall we look for that cause? The moral inconsistency of professing Christians has, no doubt, done something to shake the faith of many; the natural lawlessness of the human mind is also an element in the various attempts to get rid of a book which exalts the authority of God over the will of man; but is there not another fruitful source of unbelief in the doctrinal tenets of the very religion professed to be derived from the Bible itself? The result of these lectures will be to show that in the course of religious history there has been a great departure from the truth revealed by the prophets and apostles, and that the religious systems of the present day are an incongruous mixture of truth and error that tends, more than anything else, to perplex and baffle the devout and intelligent mind, and to prepare the way for scepticism. Do you mean to say, asks the incredulous enquirer, that the Bible has been studied by men of learning for eighteen centuries without being understood? and that the thousands of clergymen and ministers set apart for the very purpose of ministering in its holy things are all mistaken? A moment’s reflection ought to induce moderation and patience in the consideration of these questions. It will be admitted, as a matter of history, that in the early ages, Christianity became so corrupted as to lose even the form of sound doctrine—that for more than ten centuries, Roman Catholic superstition was universal, and enshrouded the world in moral, intellectual, and religious darkness, so gross as to procure for that period of the world’s history the epithet of “the dark ages.” Here then is a long period unanimously disposed of with a verdict in which all Protestants, at least, will agree, viz., “Truth almost absent from the earth though the Bible was in the hands of the teachers.” Recent centuries have witnessed the “Reformation,” which has given us liberty to exercise the God-given right of private judgment. This is supposed to have also inaugurated an era of gospel light. About this there will not be so much unanimity, when investigation takes place. Protestants are in the habit of believing that the Reformation abolished all the errors of Rome, and gave us the truth in its purity. Why should they hold this conclusion? Were the reformers inspired? Were Luther, Calvin, John Knox, Wycliffe, and other energetic men who brought about the change in question infallible? If they were so, there is an end to the controversy: but no one will take this position who is competent to form an opinion on the subject. If the Reformers were not inspired and infallible, is it not right and rational to set the Bible above them, and to try their work by the only standard test which can be applied in our day? Consider this question: Was it likely the Reformers should at once, and in every particular, emancipate themselves from the spiritual bondage of Romish tradition? Was it to be expected that from the midst of great darkness there should instantly come out the blaze of truth? Was it not more likely that their achievements in the matter would only be partial, and that their new-born Reformation would be swaddled with many of the rags and tatters of the apostate church against which they rebelled? History and Scripture show that this was the case—that though it was a “glorious Reformation,” in the sense of liberating the human intellect from priestly thraldom, and establishing individual liberty in the discussion and discernment of religious truth, it was a very partial Reformation, so far as doctrinal rectification was concerned—that but a very small part of the truth was brought to light, and that many of the greatest heresies of the church of Rome were retained, and still continue to be the groundwork of the Protestant Church.
Such as it was, however, the Reformation became the basis of the religious systems of Germany and England. Reformation doctrines were adopted and incorporated in these systems and institutions, and boys, sent to college in youth, were trained to advocate and expound them, and indoctrined by means of catechisms, text books, treatises, and not by the study of the Scriptures themselves; and on issuing forth to the full-blown dignities and responsibilities of theological life, these boys, grown into men, had to remain true to what they had learnt at the risk of all that is dear to men. It is not wonderful in such circumstances that they did not get farther than the Lutheran Reformation. The position was not favourable to the exercise of independent judgment. Men so trained were prone to acquiesce in what they were brought up to, from the mere force of habit and interest, sanctioned and strengthened no doubt by the belief that it was, and must of necessity be, true. And this is the position of the clergy of the present day. The system is unchanged. The pulpit continues to be an institution for which a man must have a special training. With a continuance of the system, we can understand how the religious teachers of the people may be grievously in error, while possessing all the apparent advantages of superior learning.
It may be suggested that the extensive circulation of the Bible among the people is a guarantee against serious mistake. It ought to be so; and would be so if the people did not, with almost one accord, leave the Bible to their religious leaders. The people are too much engrossed in the common occupations of life to give the Bible the study which it requires. They do not, with few exceptions, give it that common attention which the commonest of common sense would prescribe. They believe what they are taught if they believe at all. They cannot tell you why they so believe. Everything is taken for granted. Of course, there are exceptions; but the rule is to receive unquestioningly the doctrines of early days. Sometimes it happens that a thoughtful reader comes upon something which he has a difficulty in reconciling with received notions. There are two ways in which the thing comes to nought. The clergyman or minister is consulted; he gives a decided opinion, which, however arbitrary and unsupported, is accepted as final. If the enquirer is not satisfied, his business or his “connection” with the congregation suggests to him the expediency of keeping silent on “untaught questions.” If, on the other hand, he be of the reverential and truly conscientious type, though unable to satisfy himself of the correctness of the explanation prescribed, he thinks of the array of virtue and learning on the side of the suspected doctrine, and concluding that his own judgment must be at fault, he thinks the safest course is to receive the professional dictum; and so the difficulty is hushed up, and what might prove the discovery of Scriptural truth is strangled in the inception. Thus, you see, the great system of religious error is protected from assault in the most effectual manner, and is consequently perpetuated from day to day with effects that are lamentable in every way. Through lack of the understanding that might be attained by the independent and earnest study of the Scriptures, the Bible and science are supposed to be in conflict, with the result of generating a practical unbelief, which is rising like a tide threatening to sweep everything before it. The unconcerned are becoming confirmed in their indifference, and the intelligent among devout persons are growing uneasy with a feeling that their position is unsound at the foundation. It is easy to prescribe a remedy—a something that would prove to be a remedy if it could be generally applied; but it is hopeless to see any effectual remedy, so far as the mass are concerned, apart from that manifestation of divine power and wisdom that will take place at Christ’s return. Nevertheless, the remedy is available in individual cases. Let earnest-minded people throw aside tradition. Let them rise to a true sense of their individual responsibility. Let them emancipate themselves from the idea that theoretical religion is the business of the pulpit. Let them realise that it is their duty to go to the Bible for themselves. If they study diligently and devotedly, they will make a startling but not unwelcome discovery; they will discover something that will make them astonished they ever regarded popular religion as the truth of God. They will attain to what many an intelligent mind anxiously desires, but despairs of obtaining; a foundation on which the highest and most searching exercise of reason will be in harmony with the most fervent and childlike faith.
We pass to the second part of the subject: “How to interpret the Bible.” We get an introduction to this in the words of Paul to Timothy—“The Scriptures are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (II Tim. 3:15). Here we have apostolic authority for the statement that the Scriptures “make wise.” How is this effect produced? Obviously, by the communication of ideas to the mind. But how are these ideas communicated? There is only one answer: by the language it employs. Hence, it ought not to be a matter of difficulty to determine how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. It ought to be easy to maintain that, with certain qualifications, the Bible means what it says. And it is so. This emphasis of a very simple and obvious truth may seem superfluous, but it is rendered necessary by the prevalence of a theory which practically neutralises this truth as applied to the Bible. By this theory, it is supposed and assumed that the Bible is not to be understood by the ordinary rules of speech, but is couched in language used in a non-natural sense, which has to be construed, and rendered, and interpreted in a skilled manner. What we mean will be apparent, if we suppose it were said to an orthodox friend, “The Bible, as a written revelation from God, must be written in language capable of being understood by those to whom it is sent.” To this abstract proposition there is no doubt he would agree. But suppose his attention were directed to the following statements of Scripture: “The Lord God shall give unto him (Jesus) the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32), “and he shall be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2), and “shall reign over them in Mount Zion” (Micah 4:7). For the same Jesus that ascended to heaven shall come again in like manner as he ascended (Acts 1:11). “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him” (Psa. 72:8, 11.) for he shall come in the clouds of heaven, and there shall be given unto him a kingdom, glory and dominion, that all peoples, nations, and languages may serve and obey him (Dan. 7:13–14); and “the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed when the Lord of Hosts shall reign in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his ancients gloriously” (Isaiah 24:23).
And suppose, on the reading of these statements, the remark were made, “It seems plain from this that Christ is coming to the earth again, and that on his return, he will set aside all existing rule upon the earth and reign personally in Jerusalem, as universal king,”—what would he say? It is not a matter of surmise. The answer is supplied by thousands of cases of actual experience. “Oh! no such thing!” is the instant response; “what the prophet says is spiritual in its import. Jerusalem means the church, and the coming of Christ again to reign means that the time is coming when he will be supreme in the hearts and affections of men.”
This is the method of treating the words of Scripture to which we have referred. It cannot be justified on the plea that the Bible directs us so to understand its words. There are, in fact, no formal instructions on the subject. The Bible comes before us to tell us certain things, and it performs its office in a direct and sensible way, going at once to its work without any scholastic preliminaries, taking it for granted that certain words represent certain ideas, and using those words in their current significance. The best evidence of this is to be found in the correspondence between its terms, literally understood and the events they relate to. The events which form the burden of them are fortunately, in hundreds of cases, open to universal knowledge in such a way that there can be no mistake about them, and themselves supply an accessible easily-applied and recognisable standard for determining the bearing of Scripture statements.
Take a prophecy:—
“I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries into desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours, and I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it, and I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you; and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste” (Lev. 26:31–33). “And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee” (Deut. 28:37).
There is no dispute about the mode in which this has been fulfilled. The sublimest spiritualisticism is bound to recognise the fact that the subject of these words is the literal nation of Israel and their land, and that in fulfilment of the prediction they contain, the real Israel were driven from their real, literal land, which became really and literally desolate, as it is this day, and that Israel has become a literal byword and a reproach throughout the earth. This being so, on what principle are we to reject a literal construction of the following?—
“I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they shall be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and ONE KING shall be king to them all; and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all” (Ezek. 37:21, 22).
It is usual, with this and other similar predictions of a future restoration of Israel and their reinstatement as a great people under the Messiah, to contend that they mean the future glory and extension of the Church. That such an understanding of them can be maintained in the face of the fulfilled prophecies of Israel’s calamities will not be contended for by the reflecting mind.
Take another instance:—
“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2).
How was this fulfilled? Turn to Matthew 2, 1:—
“Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King.”
The fulfilment of the prophecy was in exact accordance with a literal understanding of the words employed, as every one is aware.
In Zechariah, chap. 9:9, we read:—
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation, lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass.”
It is difficult to conjecture what the spiritualistic method of interpretation would have made of this as a still unfulfilled prophecy. That it would have expected the Messiah to condescend so far as to ride on the literal creature mentioned in the prophecy, is highly improbable in view of the surprised incredulity with which the idea is received that Christ will sit upon a real throne, and be personally present on earth during the coming age. All conjecture is excluded by the fulfilment of the prophecy in a way that compels a literal interpretation.
Matt. 21:1–7—“Jesus sent two disciples, saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her; loose them and bring them unto me … And the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. ALL THIS WAS DONE THAT IT MIGHT BE FULFILLED WHICH WAS SPOKEN BY THE PROPHET, SAYING, ETC.
The event that fulfilled the prophecy was the event spoken of in the prophecy. So it is with all fulfilled prophecies. They came to pass exactly as the terms of the prediction, plainly and literally understood, would have led us to expect; that is, a certain thing was plainly predicted, and that thing came to pass. Is not this a rule for the understanding of unfulfilled prophecy?
But, it will be asked, is there no such thing as figure in the Scriptures? Is there no such thing as predicting events in language that will not bear a literal construction, such as describing the Messiah as “a stone,” “a branch,” “a shepherd,” etc.? True, but this does not interfere with the literal understanding of prophecy. It is a separate element in the case coexisting with the other without destroying it. Metaphor is one thing; literal speech is another. Both have their functions, and each is so distinct from the other, that ordinary discrimination can recognise and separate them, though mixed in the same sentence. This will be evident on a little reflection.
We use metaphor in common speech without causing obscurity. We are never at a loss to perceive the metaphor when it is employed, and to understand its meaning. We never fall into the mistake of confounding the metaphorical with the literal. The difference between them is too obvious for that. When we talk of tyrants “trampling the rights of their subjects under their feet,” we mix the literal with high metaphor; but no one is in danger of supposing that rights are literal substances that can be crushed to pieces under the mechanical action of the feet. When we say, “he carries a high head,” we do not mean a height that can be measured by the pocket rule; “a black look out” has nothing to do with colour; “hard times” cannot be broken with a hammer; so with “over head and ears in love,” “heart melting,” “corn dull,” “beans heavy,” “Oats brisk,” etc. They are well-understood metaphors, beyond the danger of misconstruction; but suppose we say, “The Polish nationality is to be restored.” “A new kingdom has just been established in the interior of western Africa,” etc., we use a style of language in which there is no metaphor. We speak plainly of literal things, and instinctively understand them in a literal sense.
Now with regard to the Bible, it will be found that in the main, this is the character of its composition. As a revelation to human beings, it is a revelation in human language. It is not a revelation of words but of ideas, and hence everything in its language is subordinated to the purpose of imparting the ideas. The peculiarities of human speech are conformed to in the various particulars already mentioned.
Metaphors, for example, find illustration in the following:—
A place of national affliction is likened to an iron furnace. Says Moses in the 4th chapter of Deuteronomy, 20th verse:—
“The Lord hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt.”
The fact that Egypt is metaphorically spoken of as an “iron furnace,” does not interfere with the fact that there is a literal country of Egypt.
Nations are said to occupy a position high or low, according to their political state. Thus in Deuteronomy 28:13, Moses says to Israel:—
“The Lord shall make thee the head and not the tail: and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath.”
So Jesus says of Capernaum (Matt. 11:23):—
“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell.”
And Jeremiah, lamenting the prostration of Judah, says (Lam. 2:1):—
“How hath the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger, and cast down from heaven unto the earth the beauty of Israel.”
Then nations are likened to rivers and waters. In Isaiah 8:7, we read:—
“The Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the King of Assyria, and all his glory.”
And hence, in referring to the constant devastations to which Israel’s land has been subject at the hands of invading armies, the words of the Spirit are, “Whose land the rivers have spoiled” (Isaiah 18:2).
Instances might be multiplied; but these are sufficient to illustrate the metaphorical element in the language of the Scriptures. Metaphor there is, without doubt; but this is a very different thing from the gratuitous and indiscriminating rule of interpretation which, by a process called “spiritualising,” obliterates almost every original feature in the face of Scripture, making the word of God of none effect.
There is another style of divine communication which is neither literal nor metaphorical, but which is yet sufficiently distinctive in its character to prevent its being confounded with either; and also sufficiently definite and intelligible to admit of exact comprehension. This style is the symbolic style, which is largely employed in what may be called political prophecy. In this case, events are represented in hieroglyph. A beast is put for an empire, horns for kings, waters for people, rivers for nations, a woman for a governing city, etc.; but there is in this style no more countenance to the spiritualisation of orthodoxy than in the metaphorical. It is special in its character, can always be identified where it occurs, and is always explicable on certain rules supplied by the context. The literal is the basis; the elementary principles of divine truth are communicated literally; its recondite aspects are elaborated and illustrated metaphorically and symbolically. The one is the step to the other. No one is able to understand the symbolical who is unacquainted with the literal; and no one can understand the literal who goes to the Scriptures with his eyes blinded by the veil which the “spiritualising” process has cast over the eyes of the people. This must be got rid of first; the literal must be recognised and studied as the alphabet of spiritual things, and the mind, established on this immovable basis, will be prepared to ascend to the comprehension of those deeper things of God which are concealed in enigmas, for the study of those who delight to search out His mind.
There remains one other important matter to be considered. Not long ago, on the occasion of an address on a kindred subject, a person in the audience put several questions. In answering them, the writer quoted from the prophets; but was stopped by the remark, “Oh, but that’s in the Old Testament; we have nothing to do with that; the New Testament is our standard; the Old has passed away.” Now this sentiment is a common one with many religious people. It is an erroneous idea, and has done great mischief. It has a slight basis of fact. The “first covenant” dispensation of the law, or the old constitution of Israel, has been abolished; but it is far from being true that what God communicated through the prophets has been annulled. The New Testament itself shews this clearly. As we have already seen, Paul says, “The Scriptures are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (II Tim. 3:15). Now it must be remembered that this could only apply to the Old Testament. When Paul made the statement, the New Testament was not in existence. Consider then the import of the statement—the Scriptures of the Old Testament are able to make us WISE UNTO SALVATION. If this be true, how can it be correct to speak of the Old Testament having been done away?
And this statement of Paul’s is by no means the only one to this effect. Hear what he said before Agrippa (Acts 26:22):—
“Having therefore obtained help of God. I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying NONE OTHER THINGS than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come.”
Now, if, in preaching the Christian faith, he said “none other things than those which Moses and the prophets did say should come,” it is obvious that Moses and the prophets must contain the subject-matter of that faith. This is undeniable. It is borne out by the interesting incident narrated in Acts 17:11, where, speaking of the inhabitants of Berea, to whom Paul preached, it says:—
“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica; … and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so; therefore, many of them believed.”
If the Bereans were satisfied by a searching of the Old Testament, which were the only Scriptures in existence at the time of their search, that what Paul said was true, is it not evident that what he said must in some form be contained in the Old Testament? Does it not follow that the Old Testament furnishes a basis for the things spoken by Paul? That Paul’s faith as a Christian laid hold of the Old Testament, is evident from what he said before Felix the Roman Governor:—
“After the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets” (Acts 24:14).
In harmony with this individual attitude of Paul in the matter, we find that when he went to Thessalonica, he entered the synagogue, and “three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2), that is, out of Moses and the prophets, for there were no other Scriptures for him to reason out of. And when he called together the Jews at Rome, it is testified that “he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets, from morning till evening” (Acts 28:23).
The same fact, that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are accessory to the teaching of Christ and his apostles, is apparent in several other statements to be found in the New Testament. Peter exhorts those to whom he wrote in his second epistle, chapter 3, verse 2, to “be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets?” and in the 19th verse of the first chap. of the same epistle, he says, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy, WHEREUNTO YE DO WELL THAT YE TAKE HEED.” Does not this settle the question? Jesus puts this statement into the mouth of Abraham in a parable (Luke 16:29, 31):—
“They have Moses and the prophets; LET THEM HEAR THEM; If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
And it is recorded of him that during an interview with his disciples, after his resurrection (Luke 24:27), “Beginning at MOSES AND ALL THE PROPHETS, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” If the Saviour himself appealed to the Old Testament in exposition of the things concerning him, and exhorted us to “hear Moses and the prophets,” what further need of argument?
It is obvious that those people fall into a great mistake who suppose that Christianity is something distinct from the Old Testament. So far from Christianity being distinct from the Old Testament, it will be found that Christianity is rooted in the Old Testament. The Old Testament lays the foundation of all that is involved in the New. The New Testament is simply an appendage to the Old, valuable beyond all price, and indispensable in the most absolute sense; but in itself, apart from the Old Testament, far from being sufficient to give us that perfection of Christian knowledge which constitutes a person “wise unto salvation.” The two combined form the complete revelation of God to man, vouchsafed for his spiritual renovation in the present, and his constitutional perfection in the future. Divided, they are each inefficacious to “thoroughly furnish the man of God unto all good works.”
We must request the reader to suspend his judgment on this point, and refrain from thinking too harshly of an idea which, though probably opposed to his dearest accustomed sentiments, is one that is sustained by the general teaching and emphatic declaration of the word of God, as will be shown in the succeeding lectures, to which, as a whole, the conscientious dissentient is referred for an answer to his objections.
Thus we bring the subject of the present lecture to a conclusion—“The Bible: what it is, and how to interpret it.” It was necessary to go into these details by way of preliminary to the investigation which shall be entered into in subsequent lectures—clearing away errors and misconceptions, and laying a distinct and sure foundation for what is to follow.
It only now remains for us to bespeak your sympathy with the subjects, and your patience with the necessarily somewhat dry and tedious process essential to their thorough treatment. It is a vital question, and worthy of all the labour which you can bestow upon it. We cannot be too particular in trying the evidence upon which our faith relies. We ought not to be content to take it second hand. We ought not in a day like this to simply accept what we have been taught at home, in the church and chapel, without ever giving it a thought whether it is right or wrong, or reckoning upon the awful consequences of error.
Never mind if others do not consider it their business to study the Bible. Remember that the majority have always been in the wrong in all ages of the world. Look not at your neighbours, think not of your friends in this matter. They are in all probability like the world in general. They lack independence, and are subservient to their worldly interest. They cannot afford to deviate from orthodox sentiment and usage, and long conformity has deadened their power to judge of the evidence. With all their church-goings and religious profession, the anxiety of the majority of people centres in the present evil world. Act for yourselves. Do as Peter told a Jewish assembly to do in Jerusalem:—“Save yourselves from this untoward generation.”
Human Nature Essentially Mortal, as Proved by “Nature” and Revelation.
In nothing will Christendom appear in the eyes of the Bible student further astray than in the ordinary theological view as to the nature of man. We now ask what the Bible teaches on the subject, and getting the Bible answer, we shall seek to confirm that answer by an appeal to Nature—God’s other great witness. Our argument may appear to savour of infidel tendencies, but we are confident this appearance will disappear in the eyes of such as can discriminate betweeen intellectual caprice, and earnest conviction entertained for reasons that can be stated. The proposition we have to maintain (and we bespeak your earnest consideration of the evidence in support of it) will be astounding to you at first. It is that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is an untrue doctrine, which effectually prevents the believer of it from truly apprehending the truth concerning the work and teaching of Christ.
Consider, first, what the universal theory of the human constitution is. It is that in his proper essential being, a man is a “spiritual” immaterial, and immortal being, living in a material body composed of organs necessary for the manifestation of his invisible and indestructible inner “self” in this external and material world. This organic body is not regarded as essential to man’s identity or existence. His proper self is understood to subsist in the immaterial entity or divine spark called the soul or spirit. The organs composing the body are looked upon as things which the man uses as a mechanic uses his tools—the external agencies by which the behests of “the inner man” are carried out. Mental qualities—such as reason, sentiment, disposition, etc.,—are set down as the attributes of the spiritual “essence” which is supposed to constitute himself. The body is, of course, admitted to have a material derivation “from the dust of the ground,” but the “essence” is believed to have come from God Himself—to be, in fact, a part of the Deity—a spark, or particle, scintillated from the divine nature, having intelligent faculty and existence independently of the substantial organism with which it is associated. In accordance with this view, death is not considered to affect a man’s being. It is regarded simply as a demolition of the material organism, which liberates the deathless, intangible man from the bondage of this “mortal coil,” which having “shuffled off,” he wings his way to spiritual regions, for eternal happiness or misery, according to “deeds done in the body.”
Now, in opposition to this view, we shall show that, according to the Scriptures man is destitute of immortality in every sense; that he is a creature of organised substance subsisting in the life-power of God, which he shares in common with every living thing under the sun; that he only holds this life on the short average tenure of three-score years and ten, at the end of which he gives it up to Him from whom he received it, and returns to the ground, whence he originally came, and meanwhile ceases to exist. Such a proposition may well be shocking to ordinary religious susceptibility; but it demands investigation. Our business is to look at the proof. Evidence is the main thing with which we have to deal, and that evidence is of two kinds as indicated—1st, the testimony of existing natural facts; and, 2nd, the declaration of the inspired word of God.
It may seem inappropriate to take natural facts at all into account, in discussing a question in which the Holy Scriptures are allowed to have authority. This impression disappears when we remember that nearly all the arguments by which the popular doctrine is supported, are derived from natural facts. We shall try to show that all the arguments upon which it is founded are fallacious—natural as well as Scriptural. However distasteful to purely sentimental minds such a process may be, it is the only one by which searching minds can be satisfied. We shall endeavour to show—1st, that the natural facts adduced in support of the immortality of the soul do not in any way constitute proof of the doctrine; and, 2nd, that certain natural facts exist which overturn the doctrine. Then we shall show that the testimony of Scripture is entirely inconsistent with the popular doctrine, and teaches, in fact, as one of the first principles of revealed truth, that man is mortal because of sin.
The first argument usually employed by those who set themselves philosophically to demonstrate the doctrine, is like this. They say that matter cannot think, and that as man thinks there must be an immaterial essence in him that performs the thinking, and that, the essence being immaterial, it must be indestructible and, therefore, immortal. This is an old argument, and seemingly strong at first sight. Let us consider: Is it quite correct to assume that matter cannot think? Of course, it is evident that inanimate substances, such as wood, iron, are incapable of thought; but is substance in every form and condition incapable of evolving mental power? To assert this would require the asserter to be able in the first place to define where the empire of what is called “matter” ends, and to prove that he was familiar with every part of this empire. What are the boundaries dividing that department of nature styled “matter,” from which the old metaphysicians have distinguished as “mind”? Earth, stones, iron and wood would come into the category of matter without a question, but what about smoke? It may be replied that smoke is matter in diffusion: well, what about light and heat? Light and heat can hardly be brought within any of the ordinary definitions of matter, and yet they manifestly have a most intimate relation to matter in its most tangible form. Nothing can exceed light in its subtlety and imponderability. Is it within or without the empire of matter? It would puzzle the methodical metaphysician to say. And if perplexed with light what would he do with electricity, a power more uncontrollable than any force in nature—a principle existing in everything, yet impalpable to the senses except in its effects—invisible, immaterial, omnipotent in its operations, and essential to the very existence of every form of matter? Is this part of the “matter” from which the argument in question excludes the possibility of mental phenomena? If so, what is that which is not matter? Some say “spirit” is not matter. In truth, it may be found that spirit is the highest form of matter. Certainly “spirit” as exhibited to us in the Scriptures possesses material power. The Spirit came upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost, “like a mighty rushing wind,” and made the place where they were assembled shake, showing it to be capable of mechanical momentum. Coming upon Samson, it energised his muscles to the snapping of ropes, like thread (Judges 15:14); and inhaled by the nostrils of man and beast, it gives physical life (Psalm 104:30).
It is evident that there would be great difficulty in arriving at such a definition of “matter” as would sustain the argument under consideration. It is, in fact, only an arbitrary and, in modern times, discredited system of thought that has created the distinctions implied in the terms of metaphysics. Nature, that is universal existence, is one; it is the incorporation of one primitive power; it is not made up of two antagonistic and incompatible elements. God is the source of all. In Him everything exists; out of Him everything is evolved. Different elements and substances are but different forms of the same eternal essence or first cause—described in the Bible as “spirit,” which God is; and in scientific language, by a diversity of superficial terms. The word “matter” only describes an aspect of creation, as presented to finite sense; it does not touch the essence of the thing, though intended so to do by the short-sighted, because unexperimental and unobservant, system which invented it.
But if difficult to fix the limits of unsentient matter, there is another difficulty which is equally fatal to the argument, viz., the difficulty of defining the process which is expressed by the word “think.” It would be necessary to define this process before it would be legitimate to argue that every form of matter is incapable of it; for unless defined, how could we say when and where it was possible or not possible. To say that matter cannot think is virtually to allege that the nature of thought is so and so, and the nature of matter so and so, in consequence of which they have no mutual relation. We have seen the impossibility of taking this ground with regard to “matter.” Who shall define the modus operandi of thought? It can only be done in general terms which destroy the argument now under review. Thought, in so far as it relates to human experience, is a power developed by brain organisation, and consists of impressions made upon that delicate organ through the medium of the senses, and afterwards classified and arranged by that function pertaining in different degrees to brain in human form, known as reason. This is matter of experience. It cannot be set aside as a fact, whatever reservation may be entertained as to the explanation of the fact. It is a fact that destroys the metaphysical argument, since it shows us what the argument denies, viz., that the matter of the brain electrically energised is capable of evolving thought.
The whole argument in question is based on a fallacy. It assumes a knowledge of “nature’s” capabilities impossible to man. Chemists can tell the number and proportion of elementary gases which enter into any compound; but who understands the essential nature of any one of those elements separately? The more truly learned great minds become, the more diffident do they grow on this subject. They hesitate to be certain about almost anything in which the secrets of nature are involved. The progress of biological investigation during the last century is eloquent on this subject. None but the ignorant or the superficial would be so unwise as to draw the line fixing the limit of the possible. What is nature? The sphere of omnipotence—the arena of God’s operations. Shall we say that anything is impossible with God? True, inanimate matter, such as iron or stone, cannot think; but we know, experimentally, that there is such a thing as “living matter,” and that living matter is sentient, and thinking by virtue of its organisation, which is only another phrase for its divine endowment. This is a matter of experience, illustrated in degree in every department of the animal kingdom.
It is argued that the possession of “reason” is evidence of the existence of an immortal and immaterial soul in man. The logic of this argument is difficult of discovery. Reason is unquestionably a wonderful attribute and an incomprehensible function of the mental machinery; but how can it be held to prove the existence of a something beyond knowledge, since there can be no known connection between that which is incomprehensible and that which is unknown? To say that we have an indestructible soul, because we have reasonable faculty, is to repeat the mistake of our forefathers of the last generation, who referred the achievements of machinery to Satanic agency, because in their ignorance they were unable to account for them in any other way. We may not be able to understand how it is that reason is evolved by the organisation with which God has endowed us, but we are compelled to recognise the self-evident fact that it is so evolved.
Again, it is argued that the power of the mind to “travel,” while the body remains quiescent, is proof of its immaterial and, therefore, immortal nature. Let us see. What is this “travelling” of the mind? Does the mind traverse actual space and witness realities? A man has been-in America, has seen many sights, and returns home; occasionally he sees those sights over again; the impressions made on the sensorium of the brain through the organs of sight and hearing, while in America, are revived so distinctly that he can actually fancy himself in the place he has left so many thousands of miles behind. Surely no one will contend that each time this reverie comes upon him, his mind actually goes out of his body, and transfers itself to the place thought of! If this is contended, it ought also to be allowed that the man, when so spiritually transferred, should witness what is actually transpiring in the country at the time of his spiritual presence, and that, therefore, we might dispense with the post and telegraph as clumsy contrivances for getting the news compared with the facility and despatch of soulography. But this will not be contended. As well might we say that the places and persons we see in our dreams have a real existence. In both cases, the phenomenon is the result of a process that takes place within the brain. Memory treasures impressions received, and reproduces them as occasion occurs—clear, calm and coherent, if the brain be in a healthy condition; confused, disjointed, and aberrated, if the brain be disordered, whether in sleep or out of it. In no case does reverie involve an actual transit of the mind from one place to another; and hence the “travelling” argument falls to the ground. If a man could go to China, while his body remained in Britain, and see the country and people as they really are, there might be something worthy of consideration, though even then it would not prove the immortality of the soul, but only the wonderful power of the brain while a living instrument, in acting at long distances through an electrical atmosphere.
The power of dreaming is cited as another fact favourable to the popular doctrine; but here again the argument fails; because dreaming is invariably connected with the living brain. Beside, who ever dreams a sensible dream? Dreams, in general, are a confused and illogical jumble of facts which have at one time or other been stowed away in the storehouse of the brain; and if they prove anything concerning a thinking spirit, independent of the body, they prove that that spirit loses its power in exact proportion to its separation from the assistance of the body; and that, therefore, without the body it would presumably be powerless.
It is next contended that the immateriality of man’s nature is proved by the fact that though he may be deprived of a limb, he retains a consciousness of that limb, sometimes even feeling pain in it. The argument is, that if the man is conscious of a part of himself when the material organ of that part is wanting, he will be conscious of his entire being when the whole body is wanting. This looks plausible: but let us examine it. Why is a man conscious of an absent member? Because the independent nerves of that member remain in the system from the point of disseverment up to their place in the brain; so that although the hand or foot may be absent, the brain goes on to feel as if they were present, because the nerves that produce the sensation of their presence are still active at the brain centre. But if, when you cut off a leg, you could also remove the entire nerves of the leg from the point of amputation up to their roots in the brain, and still preserve a consciousness of the severed member, the argument would be deserving of consideration.
The most powerful natural argument in favour of the popular doctrine has yet to be noticed. It is the one mainly relied upon by all its great advocates. It is this: It is an ascertained fact in physiology that the substance of our bodies undergoes an entire change every seven years—that is, there is a gradual process of substitution going on, by which the atoms, one after another, are expelled from the body as their vital qualities are worn out, and their place filled up by new ones from the blood; so that at the end of the period mentioned, the body is made up of entirely new substance. Yet, notwithstanding this constant mutation of the material atoms of the body, and this periodical change of its entire substance, memory and personal identity remain unaffected to the close of life. An old man at eighty feels he is the same person he was at ten, although at eighty he has not a single particle of the matter which composed his body when a boy, and the argument is that the thinking faculty and power of consciousness must be the attribute of some immaterial principle residing in the body, but undergoing no change. Now this has all the appearance of conclusiveness. However, let us look at it narrowly. The question to be considered is—whether this fact of continuous identity amid atomic change, can be explained in accordance with the view which regards the mind as a property of living brain substance. The question is answered by this well-known fact, that the qualities resulting from any organic combination of atoms are transmissible to other atoms which may take their place as organic constituents. An atom as it exists in food has no power of sensation; but let it be assimilated by the blood and incorporated with any of the nerves, and it possesses a sensitive power it formerly did not have. It becomes part of the organisation, and feels whether in man or animal. Why? Because it takes up and perpetuates the organic qualities which its predecessor has left behind. On this principle, we find that the mark of a scar will be continued in the flesh through life; and so also with discolourations of the skin, which exist in some persons from congenital causes. This perpetuation of physical disfigurement could not take place if it were not for the fact of the transmissibility of corporate qualities to migratory corporate constituents. Now, if we apply this principle to the brain, we have a complete solution of the apparent difficulty on which the argument of the question is founded. Mind is the result of impressions on the living brain, and personal identity of the sum of those impressions. This definition may be scouted, but it will quietly commend itself to honest reflection. It will not be questioned by the student of human nature, though it may not be understood. Mental impression is a fact, though a mystery, alike in men and animals; and facts are the things that wise men have to deal with. It is impossible to explain, or even to comprehend, the process by which thought is begotten in the tissues of the brain; but that the process takes place will not be denied. We are conscious of the process, and feel the result in the possession of separate individuality—the power of contemplating all other persons and things objectively. Now, in order to perpetuate this result, all that is necessary is to preserve the integrity of the organ evolving it. This, of course, involves the introduction of fresh material into its structure, but it does not imply an invasion of the process going on in it, which the argument in question supposes; the process conquers the material, and converts it to its own uses, and not the material the process. Who ever heard of a man’s bone turning to wheat from the eating of flour? The nutritive apparatus assimilates, which is in fact the answer to the argument. The new material entering the brain is assimilated to its existing condition; and thus, although the atoms come and go for a lifetime, the condition remains substantially unaltered, like a fire kept up by fuel. If, then, we are asked how a man at eighty feels himself to be the same person that he was at ten, though his entire substance is changed, we reply, those brain impressions which enable him to feel that he is himself, have been kept up all along, though modified by the circumstances and conditions through which he has passed. The process of change is so slow that the new atoms take on the organic qualities of the old, as they are gradually incorporated with the brain, and sustain the general result of the brain’s action in preserving its continuous function unimpaired. If cases could be cited in which identity survived the destruction of the brain, the case would stand differently; but as a fact, it is only to be found in connection with a perpetuated brain organisation.
These are the main “natural” arguments relied upon for proof of the current theological conception of the immortality of the soul. It will be observed that none of them is really logical. Each of them falls through when thoroughly looked into. The natural argument on the other side of the question will be found to stand in a very different position. At the very outset we are confronted with the difficulty of conceiving how immateriality can inhere in a material organisation. Cohesion and conglomeration require affinity as their first condition, but, in this case, affinity is entirely wanting. What connection can exist between “matter” and the immaterial principle of popular belief? They are not in the nature of things susceptible of combination. Yet in the face of this difficulty, we find that the mind is located in the body. It is not a loose ethereal thing, capable of detachment from the material person. It is inexorably fixed in the bodily framework, and never leaves it while life continues. If we enquire in what portion of the body it is specially located, we instinctively answer that it is not located in the hand, nor in the foot, nor in the stomach, nor in the heart, nor in any part of the trunk. Our consciousness unerringly tells us that it is in the head. We feel, as a matter of experience, whatever our theory may be, that the mind cohabits with the substance of the brain.
Extending our observation externally, we never discover mind without a corresponding development of brain. Deficient brain is always found to manifest deficient reason, and vice versa. Master minds in science and literature have larger and deeply convoluted cerebrums. If the popular theory were correct, mind ought to be exhibited independently of either quantity or quality of organisation.
Again, if the mind were immaterial, its functions would be unaffected by the conditions of the body. Thinking and feeling would never abate in vigour or vivacity. We should always be serene and clear-headed—always ready for the “study,” whatever might be the state of the bodily machinery; whereas we know that the opposite is the case. Sickness or overwork will exhaust the mental energies, and make the mind a blank. Languor and dullness of spirits are of common experience. We can all testify to days of ennui, in which the mind has refused to perform its office; and we can remember, too, the uneasy pillow when horrible visions have scared us. This never happens in a good state of health, but always when the material organisation is out of order. How is this? Does it not tell against the theory which represents the mind as an immaterial, incorruptible, imperishable thing? The mind is the offspring of the brain, and is therefore affected by all its passing disorders.
Let us carry the process further. Let the brain be injured, and we then perceive a most signal refutation of the popular idea; the mind vanishes altogether. The following extract illustrates:—
RICHMOND mentions the case of a woman whose brain was exposed in consequence of the removal of a considerable part of its bony covering by disease. He says, “I repeatedly made a pressure on the brain, and each time suspended all feeling and all intellect, which were immediately restored when the pressure was withdrawn”. The same writer mentions another case. He says, “There was a man who had to be trepanned, and who perceived his intellectual faculties failing, and his existence drawing to a close, every time the effused blood collected upon the brain so as to produce pressure”.
PROF. CHAPMAN, in one of his letters, says, “I saw an individual with his skull perforated and the brain exposed, who was accustomed to submit his brain to be experimented upon by pressure, and who was exhibited by the late Prof. Weston to his class. His intellect and moral faculties disappeared on the application of pressure to the brain. They were held under the thumb, as it were, and restored at pleasure to their full activity by discontinuing the pressure”.
But of all facts, the following related by SIR ASTLEY COOPER, in his surgical lectures, is the most remarkable: “A man of the name of Jones received an injury on his head while on board a vessel in the Mediterranean, which rendered him insensible. The vessel soon after made for Gibraltar, where Jones was placed in the hospital, and remained several months in the same insensible state. He was carried on board the Dolphin frigate to Deptford, and from thence was sent to St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. He lay constantly on his back, and breathed with difficulty. When hungry or thirsty he moved his lips or tongue. Mr. Clyne, the surgeon, found a portion of the skull depressed, trepanned him, and removed the depressed portion. Immediately after this operation, the motion of his fingers, occasioned by the beating of the pulse, ceased, and in three hours he sat up in bed, sensation and volition returned, and in four days he got up out of his bed and conversed. The last thing he remembered was the occurrence of taking a prize in the Mediterranean. From the moment of the accident, thirteen months and a few days before, oblivion had come over him, all recollection ceased. Yet, on removing a small portion of bone which pressed upon the brain, he was restored to the full possession of the powers of his mind and body”.
These cases are not in accordance with the popular theory of the mind. Here is suspension of mental action on the derangement of the material organisation. Obviously, the mind is not the attribute of a principle existing independently of that organisation. The facts show that thinking is dependent upon the action of the brain, and cannot, therefore, be the action of an immaterial principle, which could never be affected by any material condition.
There are other difficulties. If the mind be a spark from God—if it be a part of the Deity himself, transfused into material organisations (and this is the view contended for by believers in the immortality of the soul) our faculties ought to spring forth in full maturity at birth. Instead of that, as everybody knows, a newborn babe has not a spark of intellect or a glimmer of consciousness. According to the popular belief, it ought to possess both in full measure, because of the immaterial thinking principle. No one can carry his memory back to his birth. He can remember when he was three years old, perhaps; only in a few cases can he recall an earlier date. Yet, if the popular belief were correct, memory ought to be contemporaneous with life from its very first moment.
Again; if all men partake alike of this divine thinking essence, they ought to manifest the same degree of intelligence, and show the same disposition. Instead of that, there is infinite diversity among men. One man is shrewd and another dull—one vicious and depraved, and another high-souled and virtuous—one good and gentle, another harsh and inconsiderate, and so on. There ought to be uniformity of manifestation if there be uniformity of power.
These are so many natural obstacles in the way of the doctrine which constitutes the very foundation of all popular religion. They disprove that man is an immaterial entity, capable of disembodied existence. They show him to be a compound—a creature of material organisation—endowed with life from God, and ennobled with qualities which constitute him “the image of God”; but nevertheless mortal in constitution. Why so much opposition? All natural evidence is in its favour. If there are mysteries in it, there is nonetheless obviousness. Mystery is no ground of disbelief. This is shown by the universal belief in the immortality of the soul. Surely this is “mysterious” enough. If it comes to that, we are surrounded with mystery. We can only approximate to truth; the how of any organic process is beyond comprehension; we can but note facts, and bow in the presence of undeniable phenomena. Though we are unable to understand the mode in which nerve communicates sensation, muscles generate strength, blood supplies life, etc., we cannot deny that these agencies are the proximate causes of the results developed, whether in man or animals. Why should there be an exception in the case of thought? What we know of it, is all connected with physical organisation. We have no experience of human mind apart from human brain. In fact, we have no experience of any human faculty apart from its material manifestation; and in ordinary sensible thinking, the various living powers of man are practically acknowledged to be the properties of the numerous organs which collectively compose himself. If he sees, it is recognised as the function of the eye to see; if he hears, that it is with the ear, and that without these organs, he can neither see nor hear. In proportion as these organs are perfectly formed, there is perfect sight or hearing. Why should this principle not be applied to the mind? The parallel is complete. Man thinks, and he has a brain to think with; and in proportion as the brain is properly organised and developed, he thinks well. If it be large, there is power and scope of mind; if small, there is mediocrity; if below par, there is intellectual deficiency, and idiocy. These are facts apart from theory of any kind; and they prove the connection of mind with living brain substance, however mysterious that connection may be. Some say “No” to all this; “the brain is simply the medium of the soul’s manifestation: deficiency of intellect and other mental irregularities are the result of imperfection in the mediumship;” but this begs the question. It assumes the very point at issue, viz., the existence of a thinking abstraction to manifest itself. But even supposing we accept the explanation, what does it avail for popular theory? If the soul cannot manifest itself—cannot reason, cannot reflect, be conscious, love, hate, etc.—without a material “medium,” what is its value as a thinking agent when without that medium; that is, when the body is in the grave? The explanation, however, cannot be accepted. It is the ingenious suggestion of a philosophy which is in straits to preserve itself from confusion. How much wiser to recognise the fact which presents itself to our actual experience, namely, that all our conscious, as well as unconscious, powers as living beings are the result of a conjunction between the life-power of God and the substance of our organisation, and do not exist apart from that connection in which they are developed.
What the Scriptures Say.
We turn now to the Scriptures, whose voice is weightier than the fallible deductions of philosophy. And what find we here? Here we find a complete agreement with the natural facts in the case. First, and most astounding fact of all (as it must appear to those who think the Bible teaches the immortality of the soul), we do not find anywhere in the Bible those common phrases by which the popular doctrine is expressed. “Never-dying soul,” “immortal soul,” “immortality of the soul,” etc., so constantly on the lips of religious teachers, are forms of speech which are not to be met with throughout the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. Anyone may quickly satisfy himself on this point by reference to a concordance, if he be otherwise unacquainted with the Scriptures. How are we to explain the fact? All the essential teachings of Scripture are plain, unequivocal, and copious. The existence and creative power of God—His purposes in regard to the future—the Messiahship of Jesus Christ—the object of his mission to earth—the doctrine of the resurrection, etc., are all enforced as plainly as language can enforce them; but of the doctrine of immortality of the soul, there is not the slightest mention. This fact is acknowledged by eminent theologians, but does not seem to suggest to their minds the fictitiousness of the doctrine. They argue the other way, and maintain (or at least suggest) that the reason of the Bible passing over in silence the doctrine of human immortality is because it is so self-evident as to require no enunciation. This is very unsatisfactory. It would be much more appropriate to suggest the very opposite significance to the silence of the Scriptures on the subject. If the immortality of the soul is to be believed without sanction from revelation, on the mere assumption that it is self-evident, may we not uphold any doctrine for which we have a prepossession? A more rational course to pursue is surely to suspect a doctrine not divinely inculcated, and subject it to the severest scrutiny. This is the course adopted in the present lecture; and we shall find that the process will result in a complete breakdown of the doctrine. The Bible is not silent on the question, although it says nothing about the immortality of the soul. It supplies direct and conclusive evidence of the absolute mortality of man.
Some, however, may not be satisfied that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not definitely broached in the sacred writings. Recalling to mind the constant use of the word “soul,” they may be disposed to consider that it is countenanced and endorsed in such a way as to render formal enunciation superfluous. For the benefit of such, it will be well to look at the use made of the word in the Scriptures, in order to see its meaning. First, let it be remembered that in its original derivation the word “soul” simply means a breathing creature, without any reference to its constitution, or the duration of existence. This fact is strikingly illustrated in the renderings adopted by our translators in the first few chapters of Genesis. As applied to Adam, it is translated soul (Gen. 2:7); as applied to beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish, it is rendered “creature” and “thing” (Gen. 1:20, 21, 24, 28). The word is employed to express various ideas arising out of respiring existence as its fundamental significance. It is put for persons in the following:—
“And Abram took … the souls that they had gotten in Haran, and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan;” that is, Abraham took all the persons, etc. (Gen. 12:5).
It is applied to animals in this:—
“Levy a tribute unto the Lord of the men of war which went out to battle, one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep” (Num. 31:28).
It is also used to represent mind, disposition, life, etc.; and that which it describes is spoken of as capable of hunger (Prov. 19:15), of being satisfied with food (Lam. 1:11, 19), of touching a material object (Lev. 5:2), of going into the grave (Job 33:22, 28), of coming out of it (Psalm 30:3), etc. It is never spoken of as an immaterial, immortal, thinking entity. The original word occurs in the Old Testament about 700 times, and in the New Testament about 180 times; and among all the variety of its renderings, it is impossible to discover anything approaching to the popular dogma. It is rendered “soul” 530 times; “life” or “living” 190 times; “person” 34 times; and “beasts and creeping things” 28 times. It is also rendered “a man,” “a person,” “self,” “they,” “we,” “him,” “anyone,” “breath,” “heart,” “mind,” “appetite,” “the body,” etc. In no instance has it the significance claimed for it by professing Christians of modern times. It is never said to be immortal, but always the reverse. It is not only represented as capable of death, but as naturally liable to it. We find the Psalmist declaring in Psalm 22:29, “None can keep alive his own soul; ” and again, in Psalm 89:48, “What man is he that liveth and shall not see death? Shall he deliver HIS SOUL from the hand of the grave?” And in making an historical reference, he further says, “He spared not THEIR SOUL from DEATH, but gave their life over to the pestilence” (Psalm 78:50). Finally, Ezekiel declares (chap. 18:4), “The soul that sinneth IT SHALL DIE.”
We have to note another difference between scriptural and modern sentiment. We are all familiar with the estimate put upon the value of the supposed immortal soul. We frequently hear it exclaimed, “Oh! the value of one human soul! Countless worlds cannot be placed in the balance with it!” Now we meet with nothing of this sort in the Scriptures. The sentiment there is entirely the contrary way. Take for instance this:—
“WHAT IS YOUR LIFE? It is even a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14).
Or, Psalm 144:3, 4:—
“Lord, what is man that Thou takest knowledge of him, and the son of man that Thou makest account of him? Man is like to vanity; his days are as a shadow that passeth away.”
Or, Psalm 103:14–16:—
“He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth; for the wind passeth over it, and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more.”
And more expressive than all, we read in Isaiah 40:15–17—
“Behold the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance … All nations before him are AS NOTHING, and are counted to him LESS THAN NOTHING, and vanity.”
And in Daniel 4:35:—
“All the inhabitants of the earth ARE REPUTED AS NOTHING.”
There is only one passage that looks a little different from this. It is this:—
“What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36, 37).
This is frequently quoted in justification of the popular sentiment; but it will at once be observed that the words do not describe, the absolute value of a man’s life in creation, but simply its relative value to himself. They enforce the commonsense principle that for a man to sacrifice his life in order to obtain a thing which without life he can neither possess nor enjoy, would be to perpetrate the lightest folly. Does any one insist that it means the “immortal soul” of common belief? Then let him remember that the same word which is translated “soul” in this passage is translated “life” in the one immediately before in which if we were to read it “immortal soul” the absurdity would at once appear:—
“For whosoever will save his immortal soul shall lose it, but whosoever shall LOSE HIS IMMORTAL SOUL for my sake and the gospel’s the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35).
What an awful paradox would this express in orthodox mouths. But regard the words in the light in which we have already seen the Scriptures use it, and you perceive beauty in the idea—preciousness in the promise. He who shrinks not from sacrificing his life in this age, rather than deny Christ and forsake his truth, will be rewarded with a more precious life at the resurrection: whereas he who renounces the truth to protect his poor mortal interests, will be excluded from the blessings of the life to come.
We get to the root of the matter in Genesis, where we are furnished with an account of the creation of man. Here the phraseology is not at all in agreement with the popular view, but entirely coincides with the view advocated in this lecture:—
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7).
Here we are informed that man was made from the ground, and that that which seas produced from the ground was the being called MAN. “But,” says an objector, “that only means his body.” It is possible to say that it means anything we may fancy. A statement of this kind is worth nothing. There is nothing in the passage before us, nor anything else in the Scriptures, to indicate the popular distinction between a man and his body. The substantial organisation is here called man. True, he was without life before the inspiration of the breath of life, yet he was man. The life was something super-added to give man living existence. The life was not the man; it was the principle; it was something outside of him, proceeding from a divine source, and infusing itself into the wonderful mechanism prepared for its reception. “He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and MAN BECAME a living soul.” This is frequently quoted in proof of the common doctrine—or rather, mis-quoted, for it is generally given “and breathed INTO HIM a living soul”; but it really establishes the contrary. What became a “living soul”? The dust-formed being. If, therefore, the use of the phrase “became a living soul,” prove the immortality and immateriality of any part of man’s nature, it carries the proof to the body, for it was that which became a “living soul.” But, of course, this would be absurd. The idea expressed in the passage before us is simple and rational, viz., that the previously inanimate being became a living being when vitalised, but not necessarily immortal, for, though a living soul, it is not said that he became an “everliving” or “never-dying” soul, though doubtless he would have lived had not sin brought death.
But, whatever Adam may have been as originally constituted, the decree went forth that he should cease to be—that he should return to the state of nothingness from which he had been developed by creative power: that he should die: and this constitutes the greatest disproof that could be brought forward of man’s immortality in any sense. It was said to Adam that in the day he ate of the forbidden tree, he should “surely die” (Gen, 2:17). If there could be any doubt as to the meaning of this, it is set at rest by the terms of the sentence passed upon him when he disobeyed.
“Because thou hast eaten of the tree of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it … in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till THOU return unto the ground; for out of it wast THOU taken; for dust THOU art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:17–19).
To say that this sentence merely relates to the body and does not affect the being, is to play with words. The personality expressed in the pronoun “thou” is here distinctly affirmed of the physical organisation. “THOU art dust.” What could be more emphatic? “THOU shalt return to the dust.” This, of course, is utterly inapplicable to the intangible principle which is supposed to constitute the soul, and refers exclusively to man’s material nature.
Longfellow’s view of the matter is that:—
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.”
Ergo, it conclusively decides that to be a man’s constituent personality which undergoes physical dissolution, or, at any rate, the indispensable basis of it. Abraham expresses this view:—
“Behold now I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27).
This is Abraham’s estimate of himself; some of his modern friends would have corrected him. “Father Abraham, you are mistaken; You are not dust and ashes; it is only your body.” Abraham’s unsophisticated view, however, is more reliable than “the (philosophical) wisdom of this world,” which Paul pronounces to be “foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19).
Paul keeps company with Abraham: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18), and tells us in general to “Beware of philosophy and vain deceit,” which are specially to be guarded against on this question.
James (chap. 1:9, 10) adds to this testimony:—
“Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted; but the rich in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.”
Which is something like a reiteration of Job’s words (chap. 14:1, 2):—
“Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble; he cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down; he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.”
Then comes the words of Solomon, the wisest of all men:—
“I said (or wished) in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts; for that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; SO THAT A MAN HATH NO PRE-EMINENCE ABOVE A BEAST; for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccles. 3:18–20).
The hasty believer in the popular doctrine gets impatient with this statement: “No pre-eminence above a beast.” At first, he imagines it proceeds from a less authoritative pen than Solomon’s; he stigmatises it as detestable; but there it stands, in unmistakable emphasis, as a sweeping condemnation in the very Bible itself, of the flattering dogma which exalts human nature to equality with Deity.
Thus do the Scriptures combine with nature in pronouncing man to be a creature of frailty and mortality, who, though bearing the image of God, and towering far above all other creatures in his intellectual might, and in the grandeur of his moral nature, and in his racial relation to futurity, is yet labouring under a curse which hastens him to an appointed end in the grave.
It is of the highest importance that this truth should be recognised. It is impossible to discern the scheme of Bible truth while holding fundamental error on the nature of man. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul will be found to be the great error of the age—the mighty delusion which overspreads all people like a veil—the great obstruction to the progress of true Christianity! This will be manifest to the reader of the succeeding lectures. Words truly fail to describe the mischief the doctrine has done. It has rendered the Bible unintelligible, and promoted unbelief by making the Bible responsible for a doctrine with which its historic and moral features are inconsistent. It has taken away the vitality of religion by destroying its meaning, and investing the subject with a mystery that does not belong to it. It has robbed it of its vigour, and reduced it to an effeminate thing, disowned and unpractised by men of robust mind, and heeded only by the sentimental and romantic. Fling it to the moles and to the bats, and humbly accept the evidence of fact, and the testimony of God’s infallible word.
The Dead Unconscious Till the Resurrection, and Consequent Error of Popular Belief in Heaven and Hell
If Christendom is astray on the nature of man, it naturally follows that it is astray on the state of the dead, its theory of which occupies so large a place in the theology of the day. We now look at this subject in the light of facts and the testimony of Scripture.
Death is the greatest fact in human experience, considered in its relation to the individual. Its occurrence is universal and inevitable: its gloomy shadow, sooner or later, darkens every house. Who has not felt its iron hand? Who has not beheld the loved one chilled and stiffened by its desolating blast? The blooming child with all its prattling innocence and winning ways: the companion of youth, rosy, and healthful, and gay; the cherished wife, the devoted husband, the tried and trusty friend; which of them has not been torn from our side by the terrible hand of this ruthless and indiscriminating enemy? One day we have seen them with bright eye, beaming countenance, supple frame, and have heard the words of friendship and intelligence drop from their living lips; the next we look upon them stretched on the bier—still, cold, motionless, ghastly, dead!
What shall we say to these things? Death brings grief to the living. It overwhelms them with a sorrow that refuses consolation. It is not for ourselves that we mourn; news of life would bring gladness, even if friends were far distant, and intercourse impossible. No, it is for the dead our hearts are pained. Let us consider the bearing of this upon the popular theology of the day. If death be merely a change of state, and not a destruction of being, why all this heartbreaking for those who have gone? It cannot be on account of the uncertainties “beyond the grave,” because our grief is quite as poignant for those who are believed to have “gone to heaven,” as for those about whom doubts may be entertained. Tears flow quite as fast for the good as for the bad, and, perhaps, a little faster. There is something inconsistent with the popular theory here. If our friends are really gone to “glory,” we ought to feel as thankful as we do when they are promoted to honour “here below”; but we do not; and why? The evidence will justify the answer. Because the strength of natural instinct can never be overcome by theological fiction. Men will never practically believe the occurrence of death to be the commencement of life, when they see it to be the extinction of all they ever knew or felt of life.
If the dead are not dead, but “gone before”; if they are “praising God among the ransomed above,” they are alive, and, therefore, they have merely changed a place of “temporal” for a place of eternal abode. They have simply shifted out of the body from earth to heaven, or to hell, as the case may be. The word “death,” in its original meaning, has, therefore, no application to man. It has lost its meaning as popularly employed. It is no longer the antithesis of “life.” It no longer means the cessation of living existence (its radical signification), but simply means a change of habitation. “A man die? No, impossible! He may go out of the body, but he CANNOT DIE.” This is the popular sentiment—the dictum of the world’s wisdom—the tenacious belief of the religious world.
We shall enquire if there is anything in the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, or in the testimony of nature to warrant this belief. And we shall find that there is not only an entire absence of warrant for it, but great evidence to show that death invades a man’s being and robs him of existence, and that consequently in death he is as totally unconscious as though he had never lived. Let the reader suspend his judgment. He will find that the sequel will justify this answer, appalling as it may at first appear.
First, let us consider, for a moment, the primary idea expressed by the word death. It is the opposite of life. We know life as a matter of positive experience. The idea of death is derived from this experience. Death is the word that describes its interruption, or negation, or stopping. Whether life is used literally or figuratively; whether it is affirmed of a creature or an institution, death is the opposite of the life so spoken of. It means the absence or departure of the life. In order, therefore, to understand death in relation to our present enquiry, we must have a definite conception of life, We cannot understand life in a metaphysical sense; but this is no bar to our investigation; for the difficulty in this sense is neither greater nor less than in the case of the animals, and in the case of the animals people profess to find no difficulty in reconciling the mystery of life with the occurrence of actual death.
Throwing metaphysics aside, we need but ask ourselves, what is life as known experimentally? It is the answer of literal truth to say that it is the aggregate result of the organic processes transpiring within the human structure—in respiration, circulation of the blood, digestion, etc. The lungs, the heart, and the stomach conspire to generate and sustain vitality, and to impart activity to the various faculties of which we are composed. Apart from this busy organism, life is unmanifested, whether as regards man or beast. Shock the brain, and insensibility ensues; take away the air, and you produce suffocation; cut off the supply of food, and starvation ensues with fatal effect. These facts, which everybody knows, prove that life depends on the organism. They show that human life, with its mysterious phenomena of thought and feeling, is the evolution of the complicated machinery of which we are so “fearfully and wonderfully made.” That machinery, in full and harmonious action, is a sufficient explanation of the life we now live. In it and by it we exist.
Now, whatever prejudice the reader may feel against this presentation of the matter, he cannot evade recognising this, that there was a time when we did not exist. This important fact shows the possibility of non-existence in relation to man. The question is, shall this state of non-existence again supervene? And this is a simple question of experience, on which, alas! experience speaks but too plainly. Since human existence depends on material organic function, non-existence ensues upon the interruption of that function. By experience we know that this interruption does take place, and that man dies in consequence. Death comes to him and undoes what birth did for him. The one gave him existence; the other takes it away. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” is realised in every man’s experience. In the course of nature, his being vanishes from creation, and all his qualities submerge in death for the simple reason that the organism that develops them then stops its working.
These are the facts of the case from a natural point of view. But when we look into the Scriptures it is astonishing how much stronger the case becomes. When the Scriptures speak about the death of anyone, they do not employ the phraseology of the modern religionist. They do not say of the righteous that they have “gone to their reward,” or “gone to their last account,” or that they have “winged their flight to a better world”; or of the wicked, that they are “gone to appear before the bar of God, to answer for their misdeeds.” The language is expressive of a contrary doctrine. The death of Abraham, the father of the faithful, is thus recorded:—
“And Abraham gave up the ghost, trod died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8).
So also in the case of Isaac:—
“And Isaac gave up the ghost and died, and was gathered unto his people” (Gen. 35:29).
So of Jacob:—
“And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people” (Gen. 49:33).
Of Joseph it is simply said:—
“So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old, and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (Gen. 50:26).
So in the case of Moses:—
“So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley, in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor, but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day” (Deut. 34:5, 6).
And so we shall find it in the case of Joshua (Jos. 24:29), Samuel (I Sam. 25:1), David (I Kings 2:1, 2, 10; Acts 2:29, 34); Solomon (I Kings 11:43), and all others whose death is recorded in the Scriptures. They are never said to have gone away anywhere, but are always spoken of as dying, giving up their life, and returning to the ground. The same style of language is adopted by Paul when he speaks of the generation of the righteous dead. He says (Heb 11:13):—
“These all died in faith, NOT HAVING RECEIVED THE PROMISES, but having seen them afar off”
If Jesus spake of the death of Lazarus, he recognised the fact in its plainest sense (John 11:11–14):—
“He (Jesus) saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death, but they thought he had spoken of taking rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, LAZARUS IS DEAD.”
When Luke records the death of Stephen (Acts 7:60), he does not indulge in any of the high-flown death-bed rapture so prevalent in modern religious literature. He simply says, “He fell asleep.” Or when Paul has occasion to refer to deceased Christians, he does not speak of them as “standing before the throne of God!” The words he employs are in keeping with those already quoted (I Thess, 4:13):—
“I would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are ASLEEP, that ye sorrow not, even as others who have no hope.”
There are no exceptions to these cases in Bible narrative. All Bible allusion to the subject of death is as unlike modern sentiment as it is possible to conceive. The Bible speaks of death as the ending of life, and never as the commencement of another state. Not once does it tell us of a dead man having gone to heaven. Not once, except by an allowable poetical figure (Isa. 14:4) or for purposes of parable (Luke 16:19–31), are the dead represented as conscious. They are always pictured in language that accords with experience—always spoken of as in the land of darkness, and silence, and unconsciousness. Solomon says:—
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, IN THE GRAVE, whither thou goest” (Eccles. 9:10).
Job, in the anguish of accumulated calamity, cursed the day of his birth, and wished he had died when an infant; and mark what he says would have been the consequence:—
“For now should I have lain still and been quiet; I should have slept; then had I been at rest with kings and counsellors of the earth, which built desolate places [tombs] for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver, or as an hidden untimely birth I HAD NOT BEEN, as infants which never saw the light; there the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor; the small and great are there, and the servant is free from his master” (Job 3:13–19).
He also makes the following statement, which with the one just quoted, ought to be well considered by those who believe that babies go to heaven when they die:—
(Chapter 10:18)—“Wherefore hast thou brought me forth out of the womb? O, that I had given up the ghost, and no eye had seen me; I should have been AS THOUGH I HAD NOT BEEN.”
David incidentally alludes to the state of the dead in the following impressive words (Psa. 88:5, 10–12):—
“Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more; and they are cut off from Thy hand.”
“Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise Thee? Shall Thy loving kindness be declared in the grave, or Thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall Thy wonders be known in the dark, and Thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”
These questions are answered in a short but emphatic statement, which occurs in the 115th Psalm, verse 17:—
“The DEAD praise not the Lord, neither ANY that go down into silence.”
And the Psalmist gives pathetic expression to his own view of man’s evanescent nature, in the following words, which have a direct bearing on the state of the dead:—
(Psa. 39:5, 12, 13)—“Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth, and mine age is as nothing before Thee. Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.… Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not Thy peace at my tears, for I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O, spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and BE NO MORE.”
He says in Psalm 166:2, “While I live will I praise the Lord, I will sing praises unto my GOD WHILE I HAVE ANY BEING”; clearly implying that in David’s view, his being would cease with the occurrence of death.
In addition to these general indications of the destructive nature of death as a deprivation of being, there are other statements in the Scriptures which specifically deny that the dead have any consciousness. For instance:—
“The living know that they shall die; but THE DEAD KNOW NOT ANYTHING, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten; also their love, and their hatred, and their envy is now PERISHED, neither have they any more a portion for in anything that is done under the sun” (Eccles. 9:5, 6).
How often we hear the remark concerning the dead, “Ah, well! He knows all now!” What shall we say about it? If Solomon’s words have any meaning, the remark is the very opposite of true. What can be more explicit? “The dead know not anything.” It would certainly be a wonderful feat of exegesis that should make this mean “The dead know everything.” How common again, to believe that after death, the dead will love and serve God with greater devotion in heaven, because freed from the clog of this mortal body; or curse Him with hotter hatred in hell, for the same reason; that, in fact, their love will be perfected, and their hate intensified; in the very face of Solomon’s declaration to the contrary. “Their love and their hatred, and their envy are now perished.” David is equally decisive on this point. He says (Psa. 146:3, 4):—
“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help; his breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day HIS THOUGHTS PERISH.”
Again (Psalm 6:5):—
“In death THERE IS NO REMEMBRANCE OF THEE: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?”
Hezekiah, king of Israel, gives similar testimony. He had been “sick, nigh unto death,” and on his recovery, he indited a song of praise to God, in which he gave the following reason for thanksgiving:—
“For the grave cannot praise Thee, death cannot celebrate Thee, they that go down into the pit CANNOT hope for thy truth. The living, THE LIVING, he shall praise Thee as I do this day” (Isa. 38:18, 19).
This array of Scripture testimony must be conclusive with those with whom Scripture authority carries weight. If there is anything decisive in the verdict of Scripture, the state of the dead ought no longer to be a debatable question. The Bible settles it against all philosophical speculation. It teaches that death is a total eclipse of being—a complete obliteration of our conscious selves from God’s universe. This will do no violence to the feelings of those who are governed by wisdom of the type inculcated in the Scriptures. Such will but bow in the presence of God’s appointment, whatever it is. They would do this if the appointment were harder to receive than it is in this case. Instead of being hard to receive, it accords with our experience and our instincts. And still better, it frees all Bible doctrine from obscurity.
It establishes the doctrine of the resurrection on the firm foundation of necessity; for in this view, a future life is only attainable by resurrection; whereas, in the popular view, future life is a natural growth from the present, affected neither one way nor the other by the “resurrection of the body.” In fact it is difficult to see any use for resurrection at all if we accept the popular idea; for if a man “goes to his reward” at death, and enjoys all the felicity of heaven of which his nature is capable, it seems incongruous that, after a certain time, he should be compelled to leave the celestial regions, and rejoin his body on earth, when without that body he is supposed to have so much more capability of enjoyment. The resurrection seems out of place in such a system; and accordingly we find that, now-a-days, many are abandoning it, and vainly trying to explain away the New Testament doctrine of physical resurrection altogether, in favour of the Swedenborgian theory of spiritual resuscitation.
We have cited many Scriptures in proof of the reality of death, and the consequent unconsciousness of those who are dead. Those Scriptures are not ambiguous. They are clear, plain, and intelligible. Now, suppose the positive declarations they make were propounded in the form of interrogations, to any modern religious teacher, or to any of the intelligent among his flock, would their answers be at all in harmony with those declarations? Let us see. Suppose we enquire, “Do the dead know anything”? what would the answer be? “Oh, yes, they know a great deal more than the living.” Or let us ask, “When a man goes to the grave, do his thoughts perish”? The answer would instantly be, in the words of a “reverend” gentleman, in a funeral sermon, “Oh no, we rejoice to know that death, though it may close our mortal history, is not the termination of our existence—it is not even the suspension of consciousness.” Or again, Is there any remembrance of God in death? “Oh yes, the righteous dead know Him more perfectly, and love Him more fully than they did when on earth.” Do the dead praise the Lord? “Certainly; if they are redeemed; they join in the song of Moses and the Lamb before the throne.” Do babies that die pass away as though they had never been born? “No! perish the thought! They go to heaven and become angels in the presence of God.”
Thus, in every instance, popular belief, in reference to the dead, is exactly contrary to the explicit statements of Scripture. It is a belief entirely destitute of foundation. It is opposed to all truth—natural and revealed. In the last lecture, an endcavour was made to expose the fallacy of the “natural” arguments on which it is founded. We shall now look at a few of the Scriptural reasons that are generally put forward in its behalf. Those reasons are based upon certain passages that occur mostly in the New Testament; and of these passages it has to be remarked, to commence with, that, although they do bear on the face of them some apparent countenance to popular belief, not one of them affirms that belief. The evidence they are supposed to contain is purely inferential. That is, they make certain statements which are supposed to imply the doctrine sought to be proved, but they do not proclaim the doctrine itself. Now, it is important to note this general fact to commence with. It is something to know that there is not a single promise of heaven at death in the whole Bible, and not a single declaration that man has an immortal soul; and that all the supposed evidence contained in the Bible in favour of these doctrines, is so decidedly ambiguous, as to be open to disputation as to its meaning. It is important, because the testimony in favour of the opposite view (the one set forth in the present lecture), is so clear and explicit that it cannot be set aside without the grossest violation of the fundamental laws of the language. This consideration suggests an important principle of Scriptural interpretation, viz., that plain testimony ought to guide us in the understanding of what may be obscure. We ought to procure our fundamental principles from teaching that cannot be misunderstood, and harmonise all difficulties therewith. It is unwise to found a dogma on a passage, which, from its vagueness, is susceptible of two interpretations, especially if that dogma is in opposition to the unmistakable declarations of the Word of God elsewhere.
Let us for a moment apply this principle to the Scriptures cited by those who set themselves to justify the popular theory.
The first is the answer of Christ to the thief on the Cross (as set out in the Authorised Version), “To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This is thought to establish the common idea at once; but let us see. The pith of the argument turns upon the date of its fulfilment. Now Jesus was not in paradise in the popular sense, that day; for we find him saying to Mary after his resurrection, “Touch me not, FOR I AM NOT YET ASCENDED TO MY FATHER” (John 20:17). Jesus was not in heaven during at least three days after his promise to the thief. Where had he been? The answer is in the grave. Ay, but his soul, asks one, where had it been? Let Peter answer (Acts 2:31), “His soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption.” He, or “his soul,” which is equivalent to “himself,” was in the grave, or “hell” (for the words are in most cases synonymous in scriptural use, as we shall see by and by), awaiting the interference of the Father from above to deliver him from the bonds of death. The conclusion is, that Christ’s promise to the thief is of no avail whatever as a proof of the heaven-going consciousness of the dead, inasmuch as it was not fulfilled in the sense in which we would require to view it before it could constitute such proof.
Has it been fulfilled at all? Let us consider the question of the thief. It was quite clear that his mind was not fixed on the idea of going to heaven. He did not say, “Lord, remember me, now that thou art about to go into thy kingdom,” but “Lord, remember me, when thou comest into Thy kingdom.” He had a coming in his eye—not a going; and he looked upon it as a future event, and his desire was to be remembered when that future event should be accomplished—“when thou comest into thy kingdom.” We shall say something about this “coming” hereafter. Meanwhile it is sufficient to direct attention to the general fact, as furnishing a clue to the meaning of Christ’s answer. There is good ground for the contention of those who say that Christ’s answer is most properly read with the comma after “today”—“I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.” But in either case, the words are devoid of the meaning attached to them by those who quote them to support the popular idea.
The account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) is the principal stronghold of the popular belief. It is brought forward with great confidence on every occasion on which the popular belief is assailed. A little consideration, however, will reveal its unsuitability to the purpose for which it is used. We must first realise, if we can, the nature of the passage of Scripture in question. It is either a literal narrative or a parable. If it is a literal narrative—that is, an account of things that actually happened, given by Christ as a guide to our conception of the “disembodied” state—then it is perfectly legitimate to bring it forward in confutation of the view advanced in this lecture. But in that case it would not only upset that view, but it would upset the popular view also, and establish the view that was entertained by the Pharisees, to whom the parable was addressed; for it will be found on investigation that it is the tradition of the Pharisees that forms the basis of the parable; a tradition which clashes with the popular theory of the death-state in many particulars.
Look at the incidents of the parable: see how incompatible they are with the popular theory. The rich man lifts up his eyes, being in torment, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom; and cries, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue.” Does popular theology allow of the wicked in hell seeing the righteous in heaven? or admit of the possibility of conversation passing between the occupants of the two places? And has the popular immortal soul, finger-tips, tongue, and other material members, on which water would have a cooling effect? Abraham denied the rich man’s request, adding as a supplementary reason, “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that they which would pass from hence to you CANNOT.” (Is a “gulf” any obstacle to the transit of an immaterial soul?) The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brethren, to testify to them lest they should come to the same place of torment; Abraham answered, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one ROSE FROM THE DEAD.” (What need, according to the popular view, for a rising from the dead, since a spirit commissioned from the “vasty deep” would have been sufficient to communicate the warning?) The whole narrative has an air of tangibility about it which is inconsistent with the common view of the state of the dead. Besides, think of heaven and hell being within sight of each other, and of conversation passing between the two places! If we insist upon the story as a literal narrative, we are committed to all these particulars, which are so thoroughly at variance with the popular theory.
Is it a literal narrative? Even orthodox believers talk of it as a parable, which it doubtless is. As a parable, it has nothing to do with the question in dispute one way or other. It was addressed to the Pharisees to enforce the lesson that in due time the mighty and rich would be brought down, and the poor exalted; and that if men would not be led by the testimony of Moses and the prophets, miracles (even the raising of the dead) would fail to move them. The parable has no reference to the particular view of the death-state which its literal outlines reflect; it bears entirely on the lesson which it was used to convey. A parable does not teach itself; it teaches something else than itself, else it were no parable. But it may be urged that all parables have their foundation in fact. So they have, but they do not necessarily exhibit things that are possible. Parables in which trees speak, and a thistle goes in quest of matrimonial alliances, and corpses rise out of their tombs and address other corpses newly arrived, will be found in the Scriptures (Judges 9:8; II Kings 14:9; Isaiah 14:9, 11). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is founded on fact but not necessarily on a literal possibility. That the dead should speak was necessary for the purpose of the parable, and it would not surprise the Pharisees to whom it was addressed. For, in fact, it embodies their belief. This is apparent from the treatise on “Hades, ” by Josephus (himself a Pharisee), which will be found at the close of his compiled works, and in which the reader will find a recognition of the existence of “Abraham’s bosom,” and the fiery lake in “an unfinished part of the world.” He will find the belief of the Pharisees (reflected in the parable of Jesus) a very different thing from popular belief in heaven beyond the skies, and hell as an abyss in the black and dizzy parts of the universe. A perusal of it will convince him of the wide dissimilarity of the Jewish theory embodied in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from the commonly received doctrine of going to heaven and hell.
It may be asked, Why did Christ parabolically employ a belief that was fictitious, and thus give it his apparent sanction? The answer is that Christ was not using it with any reference to itself, but for the purpose of being able to introduce a dead man’s testimony. He wanted to impress upon them the lesson conveyed in the concluding words of Abraham, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead”; and in no more forcible way could he have done this, than by framing a parable based upon their own theory of the death-state, which admitted of the consciousness of the dead, and, therefore, their capability to speak on the subject he wanted to introduce. This did not involve his sanction of the theory, any more than his allusion to Beelzebub carried with it a sanction of the reality of that God of the heathen (Matt. 12:27).
When Christ had occasion to speak plainly, and for himself, of the dead, his words were in accordance with the truth. Witness the case of Lazarus: “Then said he unto them plainly (indicating that ‘sleep’ is not ‘plain’ and literal), Lazarus is DEAD” (John 11:14–25); “He that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” that is, by resurrection, for he had said just before, “I am THE RESURRECTION and the life”; “The hour is coming in which ALL THAT ARE IN THE GRAVES shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of condemnation” John 5:28, 29). It is in these plain words of Christ that we are to seek for Christ’s real ideal on the subject of the dead, and not in a parabolic discourse, addressed to his enemies for the purpose of confusion and condemnation and not of instruction.
It would be strange indeed if so important a doctrine as the heaven-and-hell consciousness of the dead should have to depend upon a parable! Those who insist upon the parable for this purpose have to be asked what are we to do with all the testimony already advanced in proof of the reality of death? Are we to make a parable paramount and throw away plain testimony? Are we to twist and violate what is clear to make it agree with what we think is meant by that which is admittedly obscure? Is not the opposite rather the course of true wisdom, determining and solving that which is uncertain by that which is unmistakable? If it may be urged, as it has been urged, that it was unlike Christ to perpetuate delusion, and withhold the truth on such an important question as that involved in the parable used, it is sufficient to cite the following in reply:—
“And the disciples came and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them IT IS NOT GIVEN. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables” (Matt. 13:10–13). “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to others in parables, that SEEING THEY MIGHT NOT SEE, AND HEARING THEY MIGHT NOT UNDERSTAND” (Luke 8:10).
The next Scriptural argument in favour of the popular theory is generally advanced with an air of great confidence. “Didn’t John, in the Isle of Patmos,” says the triumphant questioner, “see the redeemed of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, standing before the throne of God, and giving glory? Who are these, if the righteous don’t go to heaven at death”? This argument is generally felt to be overwhelming. “Stay, friend; turn to the first verse of the fourth chapter of Revelation, and see what you find there: ‘I heard a voice as it were of a trumpet talking with me, which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee THINGS WHICH MUST BE HEREAFTER.’ The sights which John witnessed were representations of things which were to be at a future time, and, therefore, when he saw a great multitude praising God, he beheld the assembly of the resurrected as they will appear at the second advent.”
Next comes Stephen’s dying prayer—(Acts 7:59)—“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” This is understood to mean that Stephen expected the Lord to receive his immortal soul. That this cannot be the meaning becomes manifest on a consideration of the Scripture doctrine of “spirit.” Stephen’s pneuma, spirit or breath, was not himself; it was merely the principle or energy that give him life, as it gives all other men and animals life. This principle does not constitute the man or the animal. It is necessary to give them existence, but it does not belong to them, except during the short term of their existence. Stephen’s spirit was not Stephen, though essential to his existence. The individual Stephen consisted of that combination of power and organism Scripturally defined as “body and soul and spirit.” His spirit as an abstraction was God’s and proceeded from Him, as have done the spirits of all flesh. Thus we read in Job 33:4, “The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.” Hence it is said—(Job 34:14, 15)—“If He (God) set His heart upon man—if He gather unto Himself HIS spirit, and HIS breath, all flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.” The spirit is indispensable as the basis of a living man, consisting of bodily organism. It is the life principle of all living creatures. When this life principle, emanating from God, is withdrawn, it reverts to its original proprietorship, and the created being disappears. This is the idea expressed in Solomon’s words (Eccl. 12:7), “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God, WHO GAVE It.”
But, it may be asked, why should Stephen be anxious about his spirit in this sense? Well, it must be remembered that Stephen looked forward to a renewing of life at the resurrection. This was his hope. He hoped to get his life back. Consequently, when he came to die, he confided it to the keeping of the Saviour till that day, and, as the narrative adds, “He fell asleep.” If Stephen’s personality, expressed in the pronoun ‘he’ appertained to Stephen’s spirit, and not to the bodily Stephen, then this statement would prove that the spirit fell asleep; and this is just what those who quote this passage deny.
We next come to the words of Paul, in II Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” This seems at first sight to express the popular idea; but let us consider it. Orthodox people understand that by this, Paul meant to express the desire to depart from his body and go to Christ in heaven. If this was the “absence from the body” that Paul desired, the passage would doubtless stand as an orthodox proof: but was this the “absence from the body” that Paul desired? The context answers the question by defining precisely the idea that was before Paul’s mind. It was not disembodiment, as the orthodox idea required: for he says in verse 4 of the same chapter, “Not that we would be unclothed, but CLOTHED UPON (with our house which is from heaven) that MORTALITy might be SWALLOWED UP of life.” What Patti desired was deliverance from the cumbrance of an imperfect sinful body, and the attainment of the incorruptible body of the resurrection, for, says he (5:4):—
“We that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened (5:2) earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with OUR HOUSE which is from heaven.”
Or, as he expresses it in Romans 8:23:—
“We ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, THE REDEMPTION OF OUR BODY.”
Now, when does this redemption of the body take place? Not at death, for at death the body undergoes the very opposite of a process of “redemption.” It goes into bondage and destruction. It breaks up in the ground in corruption; not till the resurrection at the coming of the Lord, is it raised to incorruption. Not till then does “presence with the Lord” take place. The testimony is:—
“The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, AND SO SHALL WE EVER BE WITH THE LORD” (I Thess. 4:16, 17).
This “absence from the (corruptible) body” is synonymous, in the passage quoted, with “presence with the Lord,” since flesh and blood will, in the case of the accepted, then be merged in the spirit-nature with which the saints are to be invested. Says Paul, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50). This being the case, he might well desire to be absent from flesh and blood. But this was not enough: it was necessary to add his desire to be present with the Lord, for all who are absent from the body will not attain to the honour of incorruptible existence in his presence. Many will be absent from the body for ever, and nothing else; that is, they will be without body—without existence—swallowed up in the second death: only those who are accepted will “be absent from the body, and PRESENT with the Lord” in the glory of the spirit-nature.
We must next look at the 23rd verse of the first chapter to Philippians—“I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.” As in the last case, this also seems, on its face, to give expression to the idea that popular theology imputes to Paul. In reality, however, it does not do what it appears to do. The words do not teach that Paul would be with Christ as soon as he departed. It would require to be shown from other parts of God’s word that a man was with Christ the moment he “departed,” before the passage could be pressed into that service. As it stands, it merely expresses a certain sequence of events, without indicating whether there is any actual interval between the events or not. Depart, first; then be with Christ, but whether immediately after departing, or a time after departing, there is nothing in the expression to tell. If we understand that depart means to die, then the question to settle is, what is provided in the Christian system as the means of introducing a dead person to Christ? The answer which all investigation will yield to this question is, Resurrection. It might seem as if two things so far apart could not be brought together as they are in Paul’s language; but it must be remembered that the thing is described from the point of view of the person dying. Now, if the dead, “know not anything,” which the Scriptures declare (Eccles. 9:5), it follows that departing and being with Christ would, to those dying, appear instantly sequential events, and, therefore, perfectly natural to be concatenated in the way Paul does here.
Paul invariably points to Christ’s return as the time of being made present with Christ. As instanced in I Thess. 4:17, already quoted, after describing the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the transformation of the living, he says, “So shall we EVER be with the Lord.” Again in 2 Corinth. 4:14, he says, “He which raised up the Lord Jesus, shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us WITH YOU.” Again John says (I Epistle 3:2), “When he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” For this reason Paul tells us in the very epistle in which the disputed words are found, that he was striving “if by any means he might attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:11). In no case does he speak of presence with the Lord occurring till that event.
Assuming this to be settled, we have to harmonise this understanding of the text with the necessity of the context. If it be asked in what sense death would be a “gain” to Paul, the answer is furnished in the words of Christ: “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” Paul was about to be beheaded; this was the death he refers to in the context. Consequently, he would, in a special way, stand related to the words of Christ, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). The question as to when this crown would be given is settled by Paul’s declaration in II Timothy 4:8: “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me AT THAT DAY (Christ’s appearing and kingdom, see 1st verse), and not to me only but unto ALL THEM also that love, his appearing.” It was “gain” to die, also, because Paul would thus be freed from all the privations and persecutions enumerated in II Cor. 11:23–28, and would peaceably “sleep” in Christ.
There are arguments advanced on Scriptural grounds in favour of the immortality of the soul which do not quite come within the category of “passages” quoted, but are rather in the nature of deductions from scriptural principles. It may be of advantage to look at some of these before passing on.
“There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.”—This is quoted to prove the eternal torment of the wicked. It surely requires no argument to show that it fails entirely in this purpose. The statement is true, irrespective of any theory that may be held as to the destiny of the wicked. While the wicked are in existence, either in this life or after resurrection, there is no peace for them. It is impossible there could be peace for them, especially looking forward to the time when they shall be the objects of God’s judicial and all-devouring vengeance. But this does not prove (as it is quoted to prove) that they are immortal Such an idea is utterly precluded by the testimonies quoted.
The appearance o[ Moses and Elias on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3). As regards Elias, it is testified that he did not see death, but was translated—bodily taken away (II Kings 2:11). His appearance would, therefore, be no proof of the existence of disembodied spirits. As to Moses, if he were bodily present, he must have been raised from the dead beforehand. That he was bodily apparent is evident from the fact of the disciples—mortal men—seeing and recognising him. But it is an open question whether either Moses or Elias were actually present. The testimony is that the things seen were “a vision” (Matt. 17:9). Now from Acts 12:9, we learn that a vision is the opposite of reality—that is, something seen after the manner of a dream—a something apparently real, but in reality only exhibited visionally to the beholder. The audibility of the voices settles nothing one way or the other, because in vision, as in a dream, voices may be heard that have no existence, except in the aural nerves of the seer. In dreams the illusion is the result of functional disorder; in vision, it is the result of the will-energy of the Deity, acting upon the hearing organisation of the trance-wrapt seer (vide Acts 10:13; also the song of the Apocalyptic living creature, and the voice of “souls under the altar”). Neither does the presence of Jesus (an actual personage) as one of the three, contribute much to a solution, because there would be no anomaly in causing Moses and Elias to visionally appear to Jesus, and in association with Jesus. It is probable Moses and Elias were really present, but the use of the word “vision” unhinges the matter a little. In no case can the transfiguration be construed into a proof of the immortality of the soul. It was doubtless a pictorial illustration of the kingdom, in so far as it represented Jesus in his consummated power and glory, exalted over the law (represented by Moses) and the prophets (represented by Elijah), and, therefore, elevated to the position to which the prophets point forward, when, as the head of the nation of Israel and the whole earth, he will cause to be fulfilled the prediction of Moses and the command of the heavenly voice:—“Him shall ye hear in all things”; “Hear ye him.”
“God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). If the orthodox believer took a logical view of this statement, he would perceive that instead of proving the immortality of the soul, it indirectly establishes the contrary. It recognises the existence of a class of human beings who are not “living,” but “dead.” Who are they? According to the popular theory, there are no “dead” in relation to the human race at all; every human being lives for ever. It cannot be suggested that it means “dead” in the moral sense, because this is expressly excluded by the subject of which Jesus is speaking—the resurrection of the dead bodies from the ground (5:31).
The Sadducees denied the resurrection. Jesus proved the resurrection by quoting from Moses the words of Jehovah, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” How did Jesus deduce the resurrection from this formula? By maintaining that God was not the God of those who were dead in the sense of being done with (see Psalm 49:19–20). From God calling Himself the God of three men who were dead, Jesus argued that God intended to raise them; for “God calleth those things which be not (but are to be) AS THOUGH THEY WERE” (Rom. 4:17). The Sadducees saw the point of the argument, and were put to silence.
But if, as is usually contended, the meaning of “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” be, that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive, Christ’s argument for the resurrection of the dead is destroyed. For how could it prove the purpose of God to raise Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assert that they were alive? The very argument requires that they shall be dead at some time, in order to be the subjects of resurrection. Thus it is that the fact of their being dead at a time when God calls Himself their God, yields the conclusion that God purposes their resurrection. But take away the fact of their being dead, which orthodox theology does by saying they were immortal, and could not die, and you take away all the point of Christ’s argument. Looked at the other way, the argument is irresistible, and explains to us how the Sadducees were silenced.
“Their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10). Whose angels? The angels of “the little ones which believe” (Matt. 18:6). It is customary to synonomise “spirits” with “angels,” and to make it out that “their angels” means the “little ones” themselves; but this is a liberty so entirely at variance both with the sense and philology of the case, as to be undeserving of reply. The “little ones” are those who “receive the kingdom of God as a little child,” and “their angels” are the angels of God who supervise their interests. “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him” (Psa. 34:7). “Are they (the angels) not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation”? (Heb. 1:14). This fact is a good reason why we should “take heed that we despise not one of these little ones”; but adopt the popular version of the matter, and the reason vanishes. “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones, for their redeemed spirits are in heaven.” This would involve a paradox. Yet without it, the proof for immortal-soulism which some see in it, is nowhere to be found.
“In the way of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof there is NO DEATH” (Prov. 12:28). This is sometimes quoted to prove that as regards the righteous at any rate there is no such thing as even momentary extinction of being. If the passage prove this, the converse is established also, that in the way of unrighteousness is death, and in the pathway thereof NO LIFE. The terms of an affirmative proposition have the same value in a negative. Hence, if this passage prove the literal immortality of the righteous, it proves the literal mortality of the wicked, which is more than those who use this argument are prepared to accept. The passage bears out the proposition that the Bible is against the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). This is the orthodox advocate’s great triumph. He feels here he has a foothold, and he recites the passage with an emphasis entirely absent from his other efforts. He generally snatches his triumph too early, however. He begins comment before finishing the verse. He exultantly enquires why this passage has not been quoted, and so on. If asked to go on with the verse and not leave it half finished, he is not at all enthusiastic in his compliance. However, he goes on if somewhat reluctantly, and stumbles over the concluding sentence, “but rather fear him that is able to DESTROY BOTH SOUL AND BODY in hell.”
Instantly perceiving the disaster which this elaboration of Christ’s exhortation brings upon his theory of imperishable and immortal-soulism, he suggests that “destroy” in this instance means “afflict,” “torment.” But there is no ground for this. In fact, a more unwarrantable suggestion was never hazarded by a theorist in straits. In all the instances in which appollumi—the word translated “destroy,” is used, it is impossible to discover the slightest approach to the idea of affliction or torment. We append all the New Testament instances in which it is used:—“The young child to destroy him” (Matt. 2:13); “might destroy him” (Matt. 12:14; Mark 3:6; 11:18); “Will miserably destroy those wicked men” (Matt. 21:41); “Destroyed those murderers” (Matt. 22:7); “Persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matt. 27:20); “Art thou come to destroy” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34); “Into the waters to destroy him” (Mark 9:22); “And destroy the husbandman” (Mark 12:9; Luke 20:16); “To save life or destroy” (Luke 6:9); “Not come to destroy men’s lives” (Luke 9:56); “The flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:27, 29); “Of the people sought to destroy him” (Luke 19:47); “To steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (John 10:10); “Destroy not him with thy meat” (Rom. 14:15); “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” (I Cor. 1:19); “Were destroyed of serpents” (I Cor. 10:9); “And were destroyed of the destroyer (I Cor. 10:10); “Cast down but not destroyed” (II Cor. 4:9); “Is able to save, and to destroy” (Jas. 4:12); “Afterward destroyed them that believed not” (Jude 5).
In all these cases “destroy” has a very different meaning from “afflict” or “torment.” The reader has only to substitute either of these words for “destroy” in any of the passages to see how utterly out of place such a paraphrase of the word would be. If “destroy” in every other case has its natural meaning, why should an exceptional meaning be claimed for it in Matthew 10? No reason can be given beyond the one already hinted at, viz., the necessities of the orthodox believer’s theory. This is no sound reason at all, and, therefore, we put it aside, and enquire what Jesus meant by exhorting his disciples to “Fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
We reply, that “life,” in the abstract, which is the equivalent of the word translated “soul”—the Revisers of the New Testament being witnesses (for they have substituted “life” for soul in Matt. 16:25, 26)—life in the abstract is indestructible. But life is not the man, nor of any use to him if it is not given to him. It is God’s purpose to give life back to those who obey Him, and to give it back immortally. This constitutes the essence of the statement we are considering. Arising out of this, there comes the special view that life in relation to those who are Christ’s, cannot be touched by mortal man, however they may treat the body. Of this life, Paul says, “IT IS HID WITH CHRIST IN GOD” (Col. 3:3) “and when CHRIST, WHO IS OUR LIFE, shall appear, then shall we appear with him in glory” (5:4). This life is the “treasure in the heavens, which faileth not,” spoken of by Jesus and said by Peter to be “reserved in heaven.” Now when men kill the saints, they only terminate their mortal existence. They do not touch that real life of theirs, which is related to the eternal future, and which has it foundation in their connection with Christ in the heavens. This is in Christ’s keeping and can be touched by no man. We are not to fear those who can only demolish the corruptible body, and cannot do anything to prevent the coming bestowal of immortality by resurrection. We are to fear him who hath power to destroy BOTH BODY AND SOUL (LIFE) in Gehenna; that is, in the coming retribution by destructive fire-manifestation, which will utterly consume the ungodly from the presence of the Lord. We are to fear God, who has the power to annihilate from the universe, and who will use the power on all such as are unworthy. We are not to fear those who can at best only hasten the dissolution to which we are Adamically liable.
Erroneousness of Popular Belief in Heaven and Hell
This follows as a conclusion from what has gone before. If the dead are really dead—in the absolute sense contended for in this lecture—of course they cannot have gone to any state of reward or punishment, because they are not alive to go.
We might well leave the matter in this position, as an inevitable conclusion from the premises established; but its grave importance justifies us in carrying the matter further. The belief in question is not only erroneous in supposing that the dead go to such places as the popular heaven or hell, immediately after death, but, in thinking that they ever go there at any time.
According to the religious teaching of the present day, the place of final reward is a region beyond the stars—remote from the farthest limit of God’s universe, “beyond the realms of time and space.” The ideas entertained concerning the nature of this place are very vague. So far as they take shape, whether in picture or in discourse, they take their cue from the earth. Hence, “The plains of Heaven.” In these “plains” the inhabitants are generally represented as singing a perpetual song of praise. The numbers are supposed to be constantly recruited by arrivals from the earth “below.” A man dies, and according to orthodox idea, the liberated soul flies with inconceivable rapidity to the realms above, safely installed in which, bereaved friends console themselves with the idea that the dead are “not lost, but gone before.” Friends think of them as better off in that “happy land, far, far, away,” than they were in this vale of tears.
Doubtless if it was true, that they were gone to a happy land, the contemplation of their state would be consoling. Whether true or not, it must strike every reflecting mind as an exceedingly discordant element in the case that the righteous after enjoying years of celestial felicity, should have to leave the abode of their bliss, on the arrival of the day of judgment, come down to earth, re-enter their bodies for arraignment at the bar of eternal judgment. What is this judgment, “according to what they have done,” for? It seems natural to suppose that admission into heaven in the first instance is proof of the fitness and acceptance of those admitted. Why, then, the trial afterwards? Judgment in such a case seems a mockery. The same remark applies to those who are supposed to have gone to the place of woe.
What is the escape from this distracting inconsistency? It is to be found in the recognition of the unfounded character of the whole heaven-going idea of popular religion. This going to heaven is a purely gratuitous speculation. There is not a single promise throughout the whole of the Scriptures to warrant a man in hoping for it. There are, doubtless, phrases which, to a mind previously indoctrined with the idea, seem to afford countenance to it, such, for instance, as that used by Peter (1st Epistle, chap. 1:4; 4): “An inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you”: of which also we have an illustration in the words of Christ (Matt. 5:12): “For great is your reward in heaven”; and more particularly in his exhortation to “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
But the countenance which these phrases seemingly afford to the popular idea, disappears entirely when we realise they express an aspect of the Christian hope, viz.: its present aspect. God’s salvation is not now on earth; indeed, it is not yet an accomplished fact anywhere, except in the person of Christ. It merely exists in the divine mind as a purpose, and, in detail, that purpose is specially related to those whom Jehovah fore-knowingly contemplates as the “saved,” who are said to be “written in the book,” that is, inscribed in the book of His remembrance (Malachi 3:16). Therefore the only localisation of reward, at present, is in heaven, to which the eye instinctively turns as the source of its promised manifestation. This is especially the case when it is taken into account that Jesus, the pledge of that reward, yea, the very germ thereof, is in heaven. In his being there, who is our life, the undefiled inheritance at present is there; for it exists in him in purpose, in guarantee, and in germ. It has no other kind of existence anywhere else at present; but it is only in heaven in “reserve”; “reserved in heaven,” in Peter’s phrase. When a thing is “reserved,” it implies that when it is wanted, it will be brought forth. And thus it is that Peter speaks in the very same chapter. He says the salvation that is reserved in heaven is a “salvation that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:13). We shall see in future lectures that it is not bestowed upon any until its manifestation at “the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ,” of whom it is said that “His reward is WITH HIM” (Rev. 22:12; Isaiah 40:10).
The phrases in question indicate in a general way that “Salvation cometh from the Lord”; and, the Lord being in heaven, it cometh from heaven; and, being yet unmanifested, can properly be said to be at present in heaven. But, on the specific question of whether men go to heaven or not, the evidence is conclusive, as showing that no son of Adam’s race is offered entrance to the holy and inaccessible precincts of the residence of the Deity. “God dwelleth in light which no man can approach unto” (I Tim. 6:16). The emphatic declaration of Christ is, “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven” (John 3:13).
Agreeably to this declaration, we have no record in the Scriptures of anyone having entered heaven. Elijah was removed from the earth; so was Enoch; but Christ’s statement forbids us to suppose that they were conducted to the “heaven of heavens” which “is the Lord’s.” The statement that they went “into heaven” does not necessarily imply that they went to the abode of the Most High. “Heaven” is used in a general sense as designating the firmament over our heads, which we know is a wide expanse, while “the heaven of heavens” points to the region inhabited by Deity. If it be asked, Where are they? The answer is, No one knows; because there is no testimony on the subject beyond that of Christ’s, which proves that they did not go to the heaven of which he was speaking.
And especially is it true that there is no record in the Scriptures of any dead man having gone to heaven. The record is the other way—that the dead are in their graves, knowing nothing, feeling nothing, being nothing, awaiting that call from oblivion which is promised by resurrection. Of David it is specifically declared that he has not attained to the sky translation which in funeral sermons is affirmed of every righteous soul. And David, remember, was “a man after God’s own heart,” and certain, therefore, of admission into heaven at death, if anybody were. Peter says:—
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day … FOR DAVID IS NOT ASCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS” (Acts 2:29, 34).
This is emphatic enough. If you say Peter is speaking of David’s body, then it proves that Peter recognised David’s body as David, and the departed life as the property of God taken back again. Again, let Paul speak of the “great cloud of witnesses,” who have passed away—the faithful saints of old times, who are supposed to be before the throne of God, “inheriting the promises,” and he tells us:—
“These all died in faith, NOT HAVING RECEIVED THE PROMISES, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).
And in the same chapter, verses 39–40, he repeats:—
“These all having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise. God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us SHOULD NOT BE MADE PERFECT.”
Let us now consult those cases in which consolation is administered in the Scriptures in reference to the dead. You know the doctrines which are enforced with such peculiar urgency by the religious teachers of the present day, when they have to discourse of the departed, such as in the funeral sermons, by way of “improving the occasion.” You will find a great contrast to these in Scriptural cases of consolation concerning the dead. When Martha told Jesus that Lazarus was dead, he did not tell her he was better where he was. He said (John 11:23), “Thy brother shall rise again.”
When death had removed some of the Thessalonian believers, the survivors, who had evidently calculated upon their living until the coming of the Lord, were filled with sorrow. In this condition, Paul writes to comfort them. Suppose a minister of the present day had had the duty to perform, what would have been his language? “You must rejoice, my friends, for those who are dead, for they are gone to glory. They are delivered from the trials and vexations of this life, and are promoted to a felicity they could never experience in this vale of tears. It is selfish of you to grieve; you ought rather to be glad that they have reached the haven of eternal rest.”
But what says Paul? Does he tell them their friends are happy in heaven? This was the time to say so if it were true, but no; his words are:—
“I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are asleep, that ye sorrow not even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. (When?) For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent (or precede) them who are asleep: For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (I Thess. 4:13–18).
The second coming of Christ and the resurrection are the events to which Paul directs their minds for consolation. If it be true that the righteous go to their reward immediately after death, Paul would certainly have suggested such a consolation, instead of referring to the remote, and (in the orthodox view) comparatively unattractive event of the resurrection. The fact that he does not do so, is circumstantial proof that it is not true.
The earth we inhabit is the destined arena in which Jehovah’s great salvation will be manifested. Here, subsequently to the resurrection, will the reward be conferred and enjoyed. There is no point more clearly established than this by the specific language of Scripture testimony. Old and New Testaments agree. Solomon declares, “Behold the righteous shall be recompensed IN THE EARTH” (Prov. 11:31).
“Blessed are the meek; for they shall INHERIT THE EARTH” (Matt. 5:5).
In Psalm 37:9–11, the Spirit speaking through David, says:—
“Evildoers shall be cut off; but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall INHERIT THE EARTH. For yet a little while and the wicked shall not be; yea thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”
Some corroboration is to be drawn from the following promise to Christ, of which his people are fellowheirs with him:—
“I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the UTTERMOST PARTS OF THE EARTH for thy possession” (Psa. 2:8).
In celebrating the approaching possession of this great inheritance, the redeemed are represented as singing:—
“Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people and nation, and hast made us unto our God kings and priests, and we shall reign ON THE EARTH” (Rev. 5:9, 10).
And the end of the present dispensation is announced in these words:—
“The kingdoms of THIS WORLD are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
Finally, the angel of the Most High God, in announcing to Daniel, the prophet, the same consummation of things, says:—
“The kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom UNDER the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Dan. 7:27).
Without going into the particular question involved in these passages of Scripture, which will be considered afterwards, it is sufficient to remark that they unmistakably prove that it is on the earth that we are to look for the development of that divine programme of events, so clearly indicated in the Scriptures of truth, which is to result in “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
Destiny of the Wicked
If we seek for information on this question at the religious systems, we shall be told of an unfathomable abyss of fire, filled with malignant spirits of horrid shape, in which are reserved the most exquisite torments for those who have been displeasing to God in their mortal state. In the foreground of the lurid picture, we shall see cursing fiends mocking the damned; men and women wringing their hands in eternal despair; and stretching away on all sides, and down to the deepest depth, a weltering ocean of blackness, fire, and horrible confusion. We shall be told that God, in His eternal counsels of wisdom and mercy, has decreed this awful triumph of Devilry!
Do we believe it? There are certain elementary truths, that, by an almost intuitive logic, exclude the possibility of its being true. If God is the merciful Being of order, and justice, and harmony, exhibited in the Scriptures, how is it possible that, with all His foreknowledge and omnipotence, He can permit ninetenths of the human race to come into existence with no other destiny than to be tortured? The Calvanistic theory has, of course, its answer, but its answer is mere words; it does not touch, or alter, or even soften the difficulty; the difficulty—the dreadful difficulty—remains to agonise the believing mind that really grasps what the popular idea of hell-torments means. The effect on the majority of reflecting minds is disastrous, in a too easy revolt against the Scriptures.
Rather than believe such a doctrine, most men reject the Bible altogether, and even dispense with God from their creed, and take refuge in the calm, if cheerless, doctrines of Rationalism. This is what many are driven to, in unfortunate ignorance of the fact that the Bible is not responsible for the doctrine. It is a pagan fiction. It ought to be known, for the comfort of all who have been perplexed with the awful dogma, and who have yet hesitated to renounce it, in fear of being also compelled to cast aside the Word of God, that it is as thoroughly unscriptural as it is distressingly dreadful.
The whole teaching of the Bible in regard to the destiny of the wicked is summed up in four words from the 37th Psalm, verse 20, “The wicked shall PERISH.” Paul gives the explanation of this in Rom. 6:23: “The wages of sin is DEATH.” Death, the extinction of being, is the pre-determined issue of a sinful course. “He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:8). That reaping corruption is equivalent to death, is evident from Rom. 8:13: “If ye live after the flesh ye shall DIE.” Corruption results in death, so that the one is equal to the other.
The righteous die, as well as the wicked; therefore, it is argued, there must be some other than physical death. The answer is that the death that all men die is not a judicial death—not the final death to be dealt to those who are responsible to judgment. Ordinary death but closes a man’s mortal career. There is a SECOND death—final and destructive. The unjust are to be brought forth, at Christ’s appearing, for judicial arraignment, and their sentence is, that, after the infliction of such punishment as may be merited, they shall, a second time, by violent and divinely-wielded agency, be destroyed in death. To this Jesus refers, when he says, “He that loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it; but he that (in the present life) saveth his life, shall (at the resurrection) LOSE it” (in the second death). All the phraseology of Scripture is in agreement on this subject.
We read in Malachi 4:1:—
“Behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of HOSTS, THAT IT SHALL LEAVE THEM NEITHER ROOT NOR BRANCH.”
Again, in II Thess. 1:9:—
“They shall be punished with EVERLASTING DESTRUCTION from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”
The Spirit of God by Solomon in the Proverbs uses the following language:—
“As the whirlwind passeth SO IS THE WICKED NO MORE; but the righteous is an everlasting foundation” (Prey. 10:25).
And again, Prey. 2:22:—
“The wicked shall be cut off from the earth, and the transgressors shall be rooted out of it.”
Zophar gives the following emphatic testimony:—
“Knowest thou not this of old—since man was placed upon earth—that the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment? Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, and his head reach unto the clouds, YET HE SHALL PERISH FOR EVER, LIKE HIS OWN DUNG. They that have seen him shall say, Where is he? He shall fly away as a dream, and shall not be found, yea, he shall be chased away as a vision of the night” (Job, 20:4–8).
David employs the following graphic figure to the same purport:—
“The wicked shall perish. The enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs. They shall consume: into smoke shall they consume away” (Psa. 37:20).
And we read in Ps. 49:6–20:—
“They that trust in their wealth and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches … their inward thought is that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations. They call their lands after their own names. Nevertheless man being in honour, abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish. This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings. Like sheep they are laid in the grave; DEATH SHALL FEED ON THEM; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning … He shall go to the generation of his fathers, THEY SHALL NEVER SEE LIGHT. Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.”
Of their final state we read in Isaiah 24:14:—
“They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise; therefore, hast thou visited and DESTROYED them, and made all their memory to perish.”
The teaching of these testimonies is self-elucidatory; it is expressed with a clearness of language that leaves no room for comment. It is the doctrine expressed by Solomon when he says: “the name of the wicked shall rot” (Prov. 10:7). The wicked, who are an offence to God, and an affliction to themselves, and of no use to any one, will ultimately be consigned to oblivion, in which their very name will be forgotten. They do not escape punishment; but of this, and of those passages which seem to favour the popular doctrine, we shall treat in the next lecture.
It may seem to the reader that the word “hell” as employed in the Bible, presents an obstacle to the views advanced in this lecture. If the Greek word so translated carried with it the idea represented to the popular mind in its short, pithy Saxon form, the popular view would be capable of demonstration, for the word is frequent enough in the Bible, and is used in connection with the destiny of the wicked. But the original word does not carry with it the idea popularly associated with the word “hell.” The original word has no affinity with its modern use. One does not require to be a scholar to see this. A due familiarity with the English Bible will carry conviction on the point, though conviction is undoubtedly strengthened by a knowledge of the original Greek and Hebrew. What, for instance, has the orthodox believer to say to the following:—
“And they (Meshech, Tubal, and all her multitude), shall not lie with the mighty that are fallen of the uncircumcised, which are GONE DOWN TO HELL WITH THEIR WEAPONS OF WAR; and they have laid their swords under their heads” (Ezek. 32:27).
It is but necessary to ask if men’s immortal souls take swords and guns with them when they “go to hell”? This may sound irreverent, but it shows the bearing of the passage. The hell of the Bible is a place to which military accoutrements may accompany the wearer. The nature and locality of this hell may be gathered from a statement only five verses before the passage quoted. “Asshur is there and all her company; his graves are about him, all of them slain, fallen by the sword, whose graves are set in the sides of the pit, and her company is round about HER GRAVE.” The references point to the Eastern mode of sepulture, in which a pit or cave was used for burial—the bodies of the dead being deposited in niches cut in the wall. As a mark of military honour, soldiers were buried with their weapons, their swords being laid under their heads. They went down to “HELL with their weapons of war.”
It will be seen that hell is synonymous with the grave. This is proved, so far at least as the Old Testament is concerned. The original word is sheol, which, in the abstract, means nothing more than a concealed or covered place. It is, therefore, an appropriate designation for the grave, in which a man is for ever concealed from view. Every use of the word hell in the Old Testament, will fall under this general explanation. As regards the New Testament, there is the same simplicity and absence of difficulty. The original word is, of course, different, being Greek instead of Hebrew; it is in nearly all cases, hades. That hades is equal to the Hebrew word sheol is shown by its employment as an equivalent for it in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Hebrew Scriptures; and also in its use by the writers of the New Testament when they quote verses from the Old Testament where sheol occurs in the Hebrew. For instance, in David’s prophecy of the resurrection of Christ, cited by Peter on the day of Pentecost (“Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell” a.v.), the word in Hebrew is sheol, and in Greek hades. In this instance, hell simply and literally means the grave, in view of which, we see the point of Peter’s argument. Understood as the orthodox hell, there is no point in it at all; for the resurrection of the body has no point of connection with the escape of a so-called immortal soul from the abyss of popular superstition. A similar consideration arises upon I Cor. 15:55; “O grave (hades), where is thy victory?” This is the exclamation of the righteous in reference to resurrection, as anyone may see on consulting the context. Our translators, perceiving this, instead of rendering hades by “hell,” have given us the more suitable word “grave”; but if hades may be translated “grave” here, it may, of course, be translated so anywhere else.
There is another word translated hell, which does not mean the grave, but which at the same time affords as little countenance to orthodox belief as hades. That word is Gehenna. It occurs in the following passages: Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; Jas. 3:6. The word ought not to be translated at all. It is a proper name, and like all other proper names, should only have been transliterated. It is a Greek compound signifying the valley of the Son of Hinnom. Calmet in his Bible Dictionary, defining it, has the following:—
“GEHENNA or Gehennom, or Valley of Hennom, or Valley of the Son of Hennom (see Josh. 15:8; II Kings 23:10), a valley adjacent to Jerusalem, through which the southern limits of the tribe of Benjamin passed.”
The valley was used in ancient times for the worship of Moloch, in which Israel, lamentably misguided, offered their children to the heathen god of that name. Josiah, in his zeal against idolatry, gave the valley over to pollution, and appointed it as a repository of the filth of the city. It became the receptacle of rubbish in general, and received the carcases of men and beasts. To consume the rubbish and prevent pestilence, fires were kept perpetually burning in it. In the days of Jesus it was the highest mark of ignominy that the council of the Jews could inflict, to Order a man to be buried in Gehenna. In one of Jeremiah’s prophecies of Jewish restoration, the obliteration of this valley of dishonour is predicted in the following words: “And the whole valley of the DEAD BODIES, and of the ASHES, and all the fields unto the brook of Kidron, unto the corner of the horse gate toward the east, shall be holy unto the Lord” (Jer. 31:40).
This is the Gehenna to which the rejected are to be given over at the judgment. That it should be translated “hell,” and thus made to favour popular delusion, is simply due to the opinion of the translators that ancient Gehenna was a type of the hell of their creed. There is no true ground for this assumption. It is the assumption upon which Calmet’s remarks are based, notwithstanding his knowledge of the subject. He was of the orthodox school, and makes the common orthodox mistake of begging the question to begin with. Let the orthodox hell be proved first before Gehenna is used in the argument. If it is a type of anything, it must be interpreted as a type rather of the judgment revealed, than of one imagined. And the orthodox “hell” is mere imagination, based on Pagan speculations on futurity.
The judgment revealed is indeed related to the locality of Gehenna, and is one that will take the same form as regards circumstance and result. “They (who come to worship at Jerusalem in the future age, Is. 66:20–23) shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (5:24). The reader will observe a similarity between these words and the words of Christ in Mark 9:44–48, “Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.”
These words are frequently quoted in support of eternal torments, but they really disprove them. In the first place, the undying worm and the unquenchable fire must be admitted to be symbolical expressions. The worm is an agent of corruption, ending in death. Fire is a means to the same end, but by a more summary process. When, therefore, they are said to be unarrestable in their action, it must be taken to indicate that destruction will be accomplished without remedy. The expression cannot mean immortal worms or absolutely inextinguishable fire.
A limited sense to an apparently absolute expression is frequently exemplified throughout the Scriptures. In Jer. 7:20, Jehovah says, His anger should be poured out upon Jerusalem, and should “burn and should not be quenched.” He says also in Jer. 17:27, “I will kindle a fire in the gates of Jerusalem, and it shall devour the palaces thereof, and it shall not be quenched.” This does not mean that the fire with reference to itself should never go out, but that in relation to the object of its operation, it should not be quenched till the operation was accomplished. A fire was kindled in Jerusalem, and only went out when Jerusalem was burned to the ground. So also God’s anger burned against Israel, until it burnt them out of the land, driving them out of His sight; but Isaiah speaks of a time when God’s anger will cease in the destruction of the enemy (chap. 10:25).
The same principle is illustrated in the 21st chapter of Ezekiel, verses 3, 4, 5, where Jehovah states that his sword will go forth out of its sheath against all flesh, and shall no more return. It is not necessary to say that in the consummation of God’s purpose, His loving kindness will triumph over all exhibitions of anger, which have for their object the extirpation of evil. In the absolute sense, therefore, His sword of vengeance will return to its sheath, but not in the sense of failing to accomplish its purpose. So that the worm that preys upon the wicked will disappear when the last enemy, death, is destroyed, and the fire that consumes their corrupt remains will die with the fuel it feeds on; but in relation to the wicked themselves, the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. The expressions were borrowed from Gehenna, where the flame was fed, and the worm sustained, by the putrid accumulations of the valley.
The statement in Matt. 25:46 is more apparently in favour of the popular doctrine, but not more really so when examined. “These shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.” Even taken as it stands in the English version, this does not define the nature of the punishment which is to fall on the wicked, but only affirms its perpetuity. The nature of it is elsewhere described as death and destruction. Why should this be called “aionion” (translated “everlasting”)? Aionion is the adjective form of aion, age, and expresses the idea of belonging to the age. Understood in this way, the statement only proves that at the resurrection, the wicked will be punished with the punishment characteristically pertaining to the age of Christ’s advent, which Paul declares to be “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (II Thess. 1:9). The righteous receive the life related to the same dispensation—a life which Paul declares to be immortality (I Cor. 15:53).
It is usual to quote, in support of the eternal torments, a statement from the Apocalypse, “They shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 14:11; 20:10). On the face of it, this form of speech does lend countenance to the popular idea, but we must not be satisfied with looking on the face of it in this instance, because the statement forms part of a symbolical vision, which has to be construed mystically in harmony with the principle of interpretation supplied in the vision. If Apocalyptic torment “for ever and ever” is literal, then the beast, the woman with the golden cup, the lamb with the seven horns and seven eyes, are literal also. Is the orthodox believer prepared for this? Surely, Christ is not in the shape of a seven-horned lamb, or a man with a sword in his mouth; surely, the false Church is not a literal prostitute, or the Church’s persecutor a literal wild boar of the woods. If these are symbolical, the things affirmed of them are symbolical also, and torment (or judicial infliction, for this is the idea of basanizo, the Greek word), “for ever and ever” is the symbol of the complete and resistless, and final triumph of God’s destroying judgment over the things represented.
Failing Scriptural evidence, the orthodox believer takes refuge among “the ancient Egyptians, the Persians, Phœnicians, Scythians, Druids, Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, etc.,” and among “the wisest and most celebrated philosophers on record.” All these people—the superstitious and dark-minded heathen of every land, the founders of the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness with God—all these believed in the immortality of the soul, and, therefore, the immortality of the soul is true!
Logic extraordinary! One would think that the opinion of the ignorant and superstitious in favour of the immortality of the soul would be rather against, than for, the likelihood of its being true. The Bible does not rate our ancestors very highly as regards their views and ways in religious things. Paul speaks of the period prior to the preaching of the Gospel (and referring to Gentile nations), as “the times of this IGNORANCE.” (Acts 17:30). Of the wisdom which men had educed for themselves through the reasonings of “the wisest and most celebrated philosophers,” he says, “Hath not God made FOOLISH the wisdom of this world?” “The wisdom of this world is FOOLISHNESS with God” (I Cor. 1:20; 3:19). Wise men will prefer being on Paul’s side.
The orthodox believer glories in the wisdom of ancient philosophy and paganism, which Paul pronounces foolishness. What can we do but stand with Paul? Paul says that immortality was brought to light by Christ in the Gospel (II Tim. 1:10). If so, how can we believe in the version of it put forward by the “wisest and most celebrated philosophers,” centuries before Christ appeared, and whose wisdom Paul, speaking by the Spirit, pronounces “foolishness”? Either Christ brought the truth of the matter to light, or he did not. If he did, the doctrines before his time were darkness; if the doctrines before his time (rejoiced in by the orthodox believer) were not darkness, but light, then Christ did not bring the truth to light in the Gospel, for in that case it was brought to light before the gospel was preached.
But many who were once orthodox are losing their orthodoxy, and are beginning to see that the teaching of the Bible is one thing and popular religion another. The following extract, from a work published in America “The Theology of the Bible,” (by Judge Halsted), will illustrate this:—
“The Rev. Dr. Theodore Clapp, in his autobiography, says he had preached at New Orleans, a zealous sermon for endless punishment; that after the sermon, Judge W., who, says he, was an eminent scholar, and had studied for the ministry, but relinquished his purpose, because he could not find the doctrine of endless punishment and kindred dogmas, asked him to make out a list of texts in the Hebrew or Greek on which he relied for the doctrine. The doctor then gives a detailed account of his studies in search of texts to give to the judge; that he began with the Old Testament in the Hebrew; and prosecuted his study during that and the succeeding year; and yet he was unable to find therein so much as an allusion to any suffering after death; that, in the dictionary of the Hebrew language, he could not discern a word signifying hell, or a place of punishment in a future state; that he could not find a single text, in any form or phraseology, which holds out threats of retribution beyond the grave; that to his utter astonishment it turned out that orthodox critics of the greatest celebrity were perfectly familiar with these facts; that he was compelled to confess to the judge that he could not produce any Hebrew text; but that still he was sanguine that the New Testament would furnish what he had sought for without success in Moses and the prophets; that he prosecuted his study of the Greek of the New Testament eight years; that the result was that he could not name a portion of it, from the first verse in Matthew to the last of Revelation, which, fairly interpreted, affirms that a portion of mankind will be eternally miserable. The doctor concludes by saying it is an important, most instructive fact, that he was brought into his present state of mind (the repudiation of the dogma) by the Bible only—a state of mind running counter to all the prejudices of his early life, of parental precept, of school, theological seminary, and professional caste.”
Yes, the Bible and the seminaries are at variance on this important subject. The seminaries light up the future of the wicked with a lurid horror, which the worthy of mankind even now feel to be a great drawback from the satisfaction of the prospects of the righteous. How can there be perfect joy and gladness with the knowledge that fierce Despair reigns among tormented millions in another place? The Bible gives us a glorious future, unmarred by such a blot. It exhibits a future free from evil—a future of glory and everlasting joy to the righteous, and of oblivion to all the unworthy of mankind—a future in which the wisdom of God combines the glory of His name with the highest happiness of the whole surviving human race.