Immortality A Conditional Gift To Be Bestowed At The Resurrection
IF NATURE be essentially mortal, and if death in relation to it be the destruction of all its manifested powers, what is the true relation of a future life to our perishing race? Many jump to the conclusion that the position taken in the two previous lectures involves a denial of future retribution, and even the rejection of the existence of God. That this is a great mistake will presently be made apparent. The view of man's mortality certainly leads to a modification of popular views, but not with the effect stated. And the modification it leads to is borne out by the testimony of the Bible with an explicitness that removes all difficulty from the path of a devout mind.
There is a natural aspiration for immortality in the human breast. The lowest forms of human nature, such as idiots, and barbarous races, may be destitute of it, but where human nature has developed to anything like its natural standard, there is a craving after the perfect and unending. We seem mentally constituted for them. Death comes as an unnatural event in our experience. We dislike it; we dread it; we long for immortality we aspire to live for ever.
It is customary to argue from our desire for immortality that we are actually immortal. This is the principal argument used by Plato, who may be said to be the father of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The argument is universally employed by believers in the immortality of the soul to the present day. It is astonishing that its logic should pass unquestioned. It would readily appear absurd in the case of any other instinct or desire. A hungry man, for example, desires food; is this a proof he has had his dinner? The argument turns the other way. If we desire a thing, our desire is evidence that we are yet without the object of desire; for, as Paul says, "What a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?" If we experience a longing for immortality, it is a proof we are destitute of it.
The existence of such a desire, however, proves a great deal in its place. It proves immortality as a possibility in the economy of the universe. No instinct or desire exists in nature without a corresponding object on which it acts. Are we hungry? There is food to be eaten. Are we curious? There are things to be seen and known. Have we benevolence? There is benefit to be conferred, need to be supplied, and suffering to be alleviated. Have we conscience? There is right and wrong. Have we marvellousness? There is incomprehensibility in heaven above and earth beneath. Have we veneration? There is God to adore. And so on, with every feeling throughout sentient nature. On this principle, the spontaneous craving for immortality and perfection proves the existence of the conditions desired, and the possibility of their attainment; and though we may be ignorant as Hottentots of the "where," "when," "how," etc., relating to them, there remains the strong natural presumption that the condition thus desired cannot be altogether a dream, though at present beyond our reach.
Still, we must use proper discrimination in the application of the argument. It does not prove the necessary attainment of immortality by any. The existence of a desire is no guarantee of its gratification. A man of great alimentive capacity may be in circumstance where food cannot be obtained. He may be shut up in a Hartley colliery, with death as the consequence. His alimentiveness points to food as its proper object, but does not insure possession of it; that is a question of proper circumstance. The logical deduction from this longing for immortality is, that as it is inconceivable that an instinct could exist which it was impossible to gratify, immortality and perfection must be attainable conditions, but that the gratification of a desire being dependent upon proper relative circumstances, it all depends upon the nature of the circumstances governing the possession of immortality as to whether immortality will be attained or not. This cuts between the orthodox believer and the infidel, refuting the immortal soulism of the one, and demolishing the irrational belief of the other.
What is immortality? We can best comprehend a thing by contrast. We know something of mortality, from which the idea of im (not) mortality comes. The word "mortality" comes from the Latin root "mors," death, and signifies deathfulness. To say of anything that it is mortal, is to affirm that it is limited in its power to continue in life, owing to inherent tendency to dissolution. We say of man that he is mortal, and he is so. We behold him daily perishing. He comes into existence as an organized being, inheriting and exhibiting all the qualities of the stock from which he is derived. We see him go out of existence as regularly as we see him come into it. The death list is the universal corollary of the birth list. No man of woman born is exempt from the law of death; however superior to his fellows he may be, however lofty the genius, however farseeing the intellect, however genial the friendship, however lovely the general character, the hand of death stays not; the end must come; the law of sin and death working in his members takes his life at last, and he sinks to the oblivion from which he emerged. This is the mortality of actual experience, whatever theory people may entertain on the subject.
Popular theory says that the mortality of common experience is related to condition, not to being; that it changes a man's place of existence, but does not touch the fact of his existence. Let us consider this a moment. It is a manifest truth that life in the abstract is indestructible; but are we to say that, therefore, a living being is indestructible? If so, it would prove the immortality of beasts, for they certainly live, as really as man, though their nature is inferior. Life is not a thinking individual power in its abstract condition, unless we take the sum total of all life as it exists in God, "the fountain of life." Subordinately to Him, the power or capacity of individual manifestation exists in the vast ocean of lifepower that subsists in the Great Eternal Fountain: but it is latent there, and can only be developed by what men have been pleased to call "organization."
The thing may seem a mystery; but certainly it is not more a mystery than the metaphysical view which attempts to explain a mystery by a greater mystery still. Mystery or no mystery, it is the teaching of experience and the declaration of the word of God. "They have all one breath" (or spirit-the same word) is Solomon's statement concerning men and animals (Eccles. iii, 19). Moses is equally decisive. Speaking of the flood, he says (Gen. vii, 23), "And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both MAN, and cattle, and the creeping things." Again (Gen. vii, 21, 22), "And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast and of every creeping thing . . . and every man; ALL in whose nostrils was the breath of life . . . died." Here man is categorized with animals, as belonging to the same class of existence-being a creature of "living substance" inhaling the universal "breath of life" shared by ALL. "The spirit of God is in my nostrils," says Job (chap. xxvii, 3). "Cease ye from man whose breath is in his nostrils," is the command of inspiration in Isaiah ii, 22. God "gathering unto Himself HIS spirit and HIS breath," is Zophar's description of death in Job xxxiv, 14. Mark, the "spirit" is spoken of as the Almighty's; and man-the substance creature-as the possessor of spirit; but philosophy has inverted this order of ideas. It has made the spirit into the possessor, and the body the thing possessed; and has opened the door for the concomitant doctrines of disembodied sky kingdom rewards, hell punishments, etc., etc.
The theory falls to the ground on the reception of the simple doctrine of the Scriptures that "God formed MAN of the dust" (Gen. ii, 7); that "the first man is of the earth, earthy," and that, "As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy" (I Cor. xv, 47, 48); that the life that is in him is God's and returns to God when the man dies (Eccles. xii, 7). The opposite doctrine, which is but the offspring of human speculation, and not the teaching of the Scriptures-for whoever read of "immortal souls" in the Bible?-is a delusion which binds the understanding of all who labour under it, giving rise to many gratuitous difficulties as to God's moral government of the world, and preventing a proper apprehension of the doctrines of Christianity, which have for their very foundation the truth that man is an evanescent form of conscious life, to whom the day of death is appointed because of sin.
How comes it to pass that man, having strong instinctive desires for immortality and perfection, shall be found in a state so much the reverse, in all respects? There is an explanation. This explanation "nature" refuses to furnish. The condition of man as a natural accident is an impenetrable mystery. Nature establishes the strictest correspondence between instinct and condition in the case of every other species throughout her wide domain, but she refuses this happiness producing adaptation in the case of her noblest production-man, leaving him to the wretchedness of disappointed noble aspiration. It is impossible to account for this fact on natural principles. Unaided by revelation, human condition and destiny must ever remain an insoluble enigma.
Turning to the Bible, the mystery is explained. We are taken away back to the origin of our species. We are shown Adam and Eve, our first parents, in primeval innocence, the happy occupants of a paradise of heavenly planting. We need not be frightened away from the contemplation of this picture by Darwinism. The evolution of species is not only an undemonstrated, but an undemonstrable scientific guess. Nay, more; it is an untenable and self stultifying hypothesis. Though many scientific men endorse it, many other scientific men reject it altogether, on scientific grounds. Professor Owen, for example-a name great in science-is in the front rank of the rejectors of Darwinism.
There is a short way of disposing of antagonistic speculation. If Christ is true, so is the Mosaic presentation of Adam in the garden of Eden; for Christ endorsed the Mosaic writings; and the New Testament, in more places than one, ties Adam and Christ together as the two poles in the divine scheme (I Cor. xv, 20-21; Rom. v, 12-20). It is no childish relapse, therefore (though it is so esteemed in many quarters), that goes back for information on a problem of human condition to the episode of Eden. Let us go thither a moment; we behold Adam and Eve pursuing the pleasant occupation of dressers of that magnificent garden of a thousand hues, spreading itself below the warming rays of an Asiatic sun. We contemplate them spending their days in the sweetness of innocence, and drinking in, with virgin faculty, the pure delights of nature. When we think of what follows, we are taught the lesson that man exists not for himself alone-that mere sensuous enjoyment is not the supreme object of existence-that there are higher actions of the mind, more serious responsibilities, more exalted obligations, which exercise alone can wake us up to-that God is the highest, and demands the absolute submission of our wills and affections to Him as the essential condition of our happiness and His pleasure.
Adam is prohibited from touching a certain tree in the midst of the garden, not because the tree was intrinsically bad, or that there was any sin in the act itself apart from interdict, but because such a prohibition was, in the circumstances, the simplest and most convenient mode of educating him in regard to his relations to the Almighty. "Where no law is, there is no transgression," says Paul. So long as the tree was free from prohibition, Adam was at liberty to use it as freely as the others; but, the prohibition having been enjoined, it became unlawful for him to touch it. How long Adam continued to obey, we are not informed; but we know that in the course of time he infringed the divine enactment.
"When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat" (Gen. iii, 6).
The consequence of this act was most calamitous:-
"Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herb of the field, 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. iii, 17-19).
Here is an explanation of the present exceptional condition of the human race. Adam, originally created with a view to possible immortality, was doomed to return to his original nothingness, and there then commenced in him that process of physical decay which terminates all in death. Having all sprung from Adam, we have, of course, inherited the deathtending qualities of his nature, because the clean cannot come out of the unclean (Job xiv, 4). On this principle, death has passed upon all men through Adam; and so we find ourselves mortal.
It is no uncommon thing nowadays to jest upon the subject, and to mockingly enquire why God did not prevent this result. It is useless to attempt an answer to those who are guilty of this folly, because they are not in a frame of mind to appreciate it. The very question evinces a flippancy of thought and, in most cases, a shallowness of moral nature which it is hopeless to deal with. To answer is like throwing pearls before swine; they are certain to "turn again and rend." The deep thinking and the devout will have no difficulty in perceiving that the occurrence of such a bitter chapter in human history was incidental to the investiture of man with the Godlike prerogative of free agency; and, further, that its occurrence was foreseen by the Almighty, and intended by Him to be the basis on which He should establish the triumph of eternal benevolence and eternal wisdom. It requires no very profound discernment to see that the introduction of evil will lead to ultimate results, so perfectly glorious as to show the infinite wisdom and mercy of God in permitting it.
After the occurrence of the transgression, and the passing of the sentence consequent upon it, a precaution was taken for the purpose expressed in these words, taken from the 3rd chap. of Genesis (verses 22 and 23):-
"And now, lest he (Adam) put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken."
Let those who believe in the natural immortality of man ponder the import of these words. What necessity would there have been for preventing Adam from eating of the tree of life "lest he eat and live for ever," if he were already and essentially immortal? Adam being mortal, the precaution was a merciful one; for had Adam, in his fallen and unhappy state, become invested in immortality, the earth would have become peopled with undying sinful men, who in the course of ages would have multiplied and overcrowded the globe, and developed a scene of indescribable confusion and misery. But this terrible calamity was averted. Adam was excluded from access to the other tree, which, under a provisional arrangement, had been endowed with life giving virtue; and so continued mortal: and his descendants, innumerable, sinstricken, and wretched, are mercifully swept away, generation after generation, like grass before the mower.
It is easy here to realize how unfounded are the popular hopes of salvation based on "being good," as they phrase it. Adam by one offence, and that, too, an offence inspired by the good motive, as men would say, of doing himself good, viz., that he might become wise, and be as the Elohim-by one offence, came under sentence of death. If one offence was fatal in the case of Adam, how can his descendants, laden with sins, hope to escape by any amount of poor goodness? No, no! men must be forgiven and justified before they can be saved: and how they are to attain to this state may be learnt in the teachings of the Apostles-apart from which there is "no hope" (Eph. ii, 12).
As it is from the Scriptures alone that we derive any rational account of the present mortal and afflicted condition of mankind, so are they the only source of information concerning our future destiny. Job asks, "If a man die, shall he live again?" This is the question which it is the special function of the Bible to answer. From no other source can we procure an answer. If we speculate upon it as a philosophical problem, we grope in the dark. There is no process in nature from which we can reason on the subject. There is no real parallel to resurrection. A seed deposited in the ground springs again, and renews its existence by the law of its nature. The power to spring again is part of itself. Not so with man. To use the words of Job (chap. xiv, 7-10):-
"There is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground yet through the scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and WHERE IS HE?"
Where is he? The answer is a simple one; he is nowhere. The dust has returned to the earth as it was, and his life spirit has returned to God who gave it: and though both dust and life continue to exist as separate elements, the man who resulted from their organic combination has ceased to be, and if he ever "live again," it will be the result of a fresh effort on the part of Almighty power.
That he will live again, is one of the blessed teachings of the Word of God. "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead" (I Cor. xv, 21). It was the peculiar mission of Christ to bring this truth to light. He proclaimed himself the "Resurrection and the Life" (John xi, 25), adding, "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, YET SHALL HE LIVE." He came, not simply to reinfuse spiritual vigour into the deadened moral natures of men, but to open a way of deliverance from the physical law of death which is sweeping them into the grave, and keeping them there. He came, in fact, to raise the bodies of men-which are the men themselves-from the pit of corruption, and to endow them, if accepted, with incorruptibility and immortality. Paul says:-"He will change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body" (Philip. iii, 21). This is connected with the resurrection, for Jesus himself says, "This is the Father's will, which hath sent me, that of all which He hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day" (John vi, 39). Thus, life and immortality are said to have been "brought to light by Jesus Christ, through the Gospel" (II Tim. i, 10). In fact, this very aim of the sacrificial work of Christ, as the Saviour of the world from sin, and as the reconciler of the world to God, from whom all men have gone astray, was to offer men everlasting life. This will appear from the following citations from the New Testament:-
"I am come that they might have LIFE, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John x, 10).
"God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might LIVE through him" (I John iv, 9).
"Ye will not come to me, that ye might have LIFE" (John v, 40).
"I am the resurrection and the LIFE" (John xi, 25).
"God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have EVERLASTING LIFE" (John iii, 16).
"Thou (the Father) hast given him (the Son) power over all flesh, that he should give ETERNAL LIFE to as many as Thou hast given him" (John xvii, 2).
"My sheep hear my voice .... I give unto them ETERNAL LIFE; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John x, 27, 28).
"This is the record, that God hath given to us ETERNAL LIFE, and this LIFE is in His Son" (I John v, 11).
"This is the promise that He hath promised us, even ETERNAL LIFE" (I John ii, 25).
"The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is ETERNAL LIFE through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans vi, 23).
"That being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of ETERNAL LIFE" (Titus iii, 7).
"Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto ETERNAL LIFE" (Jude 21).
There is one obvious reflection on the reading of these passages; if immortality be the natural attribute of every son of Adam from the very moment he breathes, there is little meaning in testimonies which, one and all, speak of immortality as a future contingency, a thing to be sought for, a reward, a thing to be given, a thing brought to light through the gospel, etc. There is complete obscurity in such language if immortality be a natural and present possession. How can a man be promised that which is already his own? The divine promise is that God will award eternal life to those who seek for glory, honour, and immortality. This is the strongest proof that human nature knows nothing of immortality at present.