Great Texts of the Bible
Life and Immortality
Our Saviour Jesus Christ, who abolished death, and brought life and immortality (R.V, incorruption) to light through the gospel.—2 Timothy 1:10.
1. It was during the whirlwind of the French Revolution, when it seemed as if all religious beliefs and restraints were to be cast off and thrown away, that the leading men, alarmed at what seemed to them a most dangerous menace to their political projects, made a concerted and remarkable appeal in support of the two great ideas, of a Supreme Being and of the immortality of the soul. These ideas, they said, are social and democratic. The denial or rejection of them is aristocratic, subversive of justice, order, and liberty; and Robespierre uttered his memorable sentence: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” If vice and virtue issue alike in nothingness, if the martyr and his murderer share the same fate, what foundation of justice remains? In this wholesale and common extinction all moral distinctions are confounded. All the higher motives and ideals of life are destroyed. There is no longer any security for human rights or human freedom. So forcibly they argued this matter that the National Convention proclaimed by acclamation the following decree: “The French people recognize the existence of a Supreme Being and the Immortality of the Soul.”
Tennyson said once to Bishop Lightfoot—“The cardinal point of Christianity is the life after death.” Certainly this is the cardinal point of Tennyson’s own faith. He believed no less strongly than Browning in the powerlessness of death to dissolve human personality. “I can hardly understand how any great imaginative man who has deeply lived, suffered, thought and wrought, can doubt of the soul’s continuous progress in the afterlife.” Tennyson is supremely the poet of Immortality; and the “intimations of immortality” were ever with him. This is his master-thought, and it was natural that he should approach Jesus Christ from this point. I think Paul’s words, “Jesus Christ who brought life and incorruption to light through the gospel,” summarize pretty accurately Tennyson’s view of the mission of Christ. Unlike Browning, who believed that the soul discovers “a new truth” in Christ, Tennyson held that Jesus Christ brought into the perfect light those truths concerning God and man of which we all have dim intuitions.
Tho’ truths in manhood darkly join,
Deep-seated in our mystic frame,
We yield all blessing to the name
Of Him that made them current coin;
For Wisdom dealt with mortal powers,
Where truth in closest words shall fail,
When truth embodied in a tale
Shall enter in at lowly doors.
And so the Word had breath, and wrought
With human hands the creed of creeds
In loveliness of perfect deeds,
More strong than all poetic thought;
Which he may read that binds the sheaf
Or builds the house, or digs the grave,
And those wild eyes that watch the wave
In roarings round the coral reef.
“Truth embodied in a tale” must surely refer to the historical manifestation of the Incarnate Word—“the revelation of the eternal thought of the universe.” And since God does reveal Himself to men, and men dimly and feebly apprehend the revelation, the Incarnate Word must fully and completely bring to light all that range of intuitions in which we recognize the self-communication of the Divine nature to our souls. We are to find our intuitions interpreted in the Incarnate Word—not, mark, in Christ’s teaching so much as in His life, His character, His person, for He wrought the “creed of creeds” “in loveliness of perfect deeds.” What Christ does for us is to interpret us to ourselves. He brings, by His own life, “life and incorruption to light.”1 [Note: Richard Roberts, The Meaning of Christ, 81.]
2. At first sight the words of the text seem to express more than they can fairly be supposed to mean. The two statements made, taken absolutely, are contradicted—the first, by a fact in providence, daily before our eyes; the second, by a fact in history, apprehended by our understanding. Death is not “abolished” since the appearance of Christ; and the doctrine of “immortality” did not remain to be “brought to light” by His advent. Among both Jews and Gentiles, previous to His coming, there was the belief in a future, immortal life; and since His resurrection, death still reigns over the whole race, just as it reigned “from Adam to Moses,” or from Moses to Malachi. It is obvious, therefore, that the text must mean something less than it seems to say, or something different from its literal or conventional import. Now (1) the word which, in the passage before us, is rendered “abolished,” is rendered “destroyed” in the 14th verse of the second chapter of Hebrews. It is there said that Christ “took flesh and blood,” that, “through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” We cannot be far wrong in inferring from this that Christ has “abolished” death in some sense similar to that in which He has “destroyed” the devil; that is to say, that, without literally annihilating either, He has so wrought against, and so far weakened and subdued them, as to restrain them from hurting those that are His. (2) Again, the word rendered “brought to light” does not so much mean to discover, or make known, as a new thing,—which is the ordinary meaning of the English phrase,—as to illustrate, clear up, or cast light upon a thing; it thus assumes the previous existence of that which is illustrated, but it asserts the fact of its fuller manifestation. Thus explained, the meaning of the text would amount to this, or may be thus paraphrased: Previous to the coming of Christ, the idea of immortal life stood before the human, or the Hebrew, mind like some vast object in the morning twilight; it was dimly descried and imperfectly apprehended, through the mist and clouds that hung upon or invested it. In like manner, Death, seen through that same darkness (for “the light was as darkness”), was something that appeared “very terrible,” and made many “all their lifetime subject to bondage.” The advent of the Messiah, including the whole of His teaching and work—the “appearing” of our Lord Jesus Christ, as “the light of the world,” and “the sun of righteousness”—was, to these spiritual objects, like the rising, on the natural world, of that luminary whose power and splendour symbolized His glory in prophetic song. To those who received Him, whose reason and heart He alike illuminated, the outward became clear and the inward calm; the shadows departed and fear was subdued; objective truth had light cast upon it that made it manifest, and “the king of terrors,” seen in the sunlight, was discovered to have an aspect that did not terrify.
Life and Immortality before Christ
1. Among the Gentiles.—It does not need any wide or minute survey of the religions of the ancient world to show that the doctrine of immortality was in sad need of reconstruction, and that the reconstruction could come only through a radical improvement in the world’s ideas concerning God. The primeval belief had assumed grotesque and extravagant forms which distressed the imagination and at the same time involved sinister reflections upon the supreme power and goodness of God.
The form in which we best remember the words of the text is that which is found in the Authorized Version, not “life and incorruption,” which is undoubtedly the true rendering of the word, and is consonant with other passages in Holy Scripture, but “life and immortality,” life and an endurance of that life onward for ever. In this latter form the thought rests more on the duration of the life; in the form which we have in the Revised Version, attention is directed more to the essential nature of the life—life in which there can be no element of death, because it is a life that is indissoluble and incorruptible.1 [Note: C. J. Ellicott, Sermons at Gloucester, 154.]
(1) In ancient Egypt the immortality of the soul and its reunion with the body in a future resurrection were made contingent upon the preservation of the fleshly form from corruption by the art of the embalmer. Personal immortality was not thought of as the immediate gift of an infinite Being, from whose fiat life in all its types and gradations issued, but as conditioned in part by the skill of the physician, whose work preserved skin and bone from dissolution. The primitive races of the Nile valley must have held in some rough, crude way the theory of the modern materialist, that all thought and feeling depend upon physical structures and that mind is disabled, if not annihilated, when sundered from the material form through which it has been accustomed to operate. If the bodily shape is lost, the “Ka,” or spirit, with which it has been identified, must pass into final oblivion.
(2) The Assyriologist tells us that amongst the earliest populations of the Mesopotamian plains, the state of the dead was conceived of in pictures which were full of gloom and profound distress. For virtuous and degraded alike the underworld was wrapped about in thick darkness and dominated by universal pain. The possibility of reaching a state of spiritual beatitude there had scarcely entered into the dream of the men who founded those imposing civilizations. Perhaps the ruthless warriors who moulded the strong, primitive empires transferred to this mysterious hereafter the shadow of their own misdoing upon earth. Men of blood, drunk with the fanaticism of the sword, made many and cruel gods after their own likeness, and the most implacable of these truculent, blight-breathing gods swayed sceptres of dominion in the underworld. Neither the Semitic nor any other branch of the human race could have a right conception of the life beyond the grave until they had learned to worship a holy, a righteous, a humane God, who swayed His sceptre of dominion over all worlds. Such affrighting ideas received their death-blow when St. John saw in the hands of the gracious and triumphant Son of Man the keys of the grave and the underworld.
(3) In subsequent centuries this weird Babylonian view of immortality projected its gloom into the religions of India and the Far East, as well as into those of Greece and Rome. The doctrine of the transmigration of souls, with many purgatories interposed between each rebirth, spread far and near, filling the popular imagination with endless appalling dramas of changing destiny. In the absence of a benign, personal, supreme God the scheme of retribution became a rigid revolving mechanism of steel, from which all possibilities of pity and forgiveness were excluded. To a solitary hero or moralist once in a century death might mean gain, if the doctrine of reward and punishment should prove to be true; but for the many there was no outlook from death towards a land of promise but the descent into inevitable woe.
But the Greeks, though they dreaded the vagueness and shadowiness of the under world, which always seemed to them bereft of sunlight and concrete form, both dear to the Hellenic spirit, yet in their happier moments had a vivid conception of heaven as the abode of the departed heroes who had deserved well of God and men. What could be lovelier and simpler than Homer’s childlike faith? This is the promise to the hero Menelaus:—
But thee into plains Elysian, which lie at the world’s far end,
The seat of the judge Rhadamanthus, the immortal gods shall send.
Ah! there is a life for mortals which knoweth not any pain,
Where comes no snow, nor winter, nor down-rush of the rain;
But the Zephyr bloweth gently, where the kindly Ocean rolls,
And sends his breath to quicken those happy human souls.
(Odyss. iv. 563–568).1 [Note: R. F. Horton.]
2. In modern speculation.—On the afternoon of October 30, 1793, twenty-one gentlemen of France, condemned to death, were confined in the Conciergerie prison in Paris. They were the Girondist leaders, the flower of the land. Their average age was twenty-two and a half years. All were guillotined next morning. That evening they had their last supper together and spoke of many things, now seriously, now gaily. Finally, as it grew late, Vergniaud, their chief orator, called them to order and said: “The only question which now remains to be considered is the immortality of the soul.” According to Nodier (who solemnly affirms the substantial correctness of his report) one of their number said: “The solution of that question is traceable in the heart of every honest man whose virtues have been sacrificed on earth. In God’s creation there is no imperfection, and if righteousness persecuted and innocence trampled under foot have no point of appeal before Him, the morality of this sublime creation is a chimera.” Another said: “The solution is indicated by nature in the intelligent instincts of the only organized being who conceives the need and desire of living again. That which nature has promised me, in giving me a presentiment of it, will be mine.” Another, Brissot, said: “It is traced by the reasonings of philosophy in the writings of Plato, and reason has never reached a higher point. That which philosophy has promised in the name of the great Architect of the worlds, I am going to find.” There was a Christian priest among them, and he said: “It is traced for the Christian by his faith, wiser than all philosophy, and that which faith has given me in the name of the Lord, I am going to possess in heaven.” These expressions constitute a résumé of the chief arguments which men have employed in support of the doctrine of personal immortality. Each of the first three—the moral, the psychological, the philosophical—has weight. Taken together, and strengthened by the argument from analogy, they have proved sound and strong enough to sustain many souls in some degree of faith and hope. The reasonings and sentiments which Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates at his last interview with his friends are most impressive and affecting. The Phaedo of Plato is a kind of prolegomenon to the gospel of the resurrection. But that Christian priest’s declaration is distinctly different in kind from the preceding arguments. It has no speculation in it. It rests on a belief that immortality has been brought to light in the gospel. If this be true, it confirms, completes, and crowns all other arguments.
3. In the Old Testament.—The ordinary belief on the subject of a future life shared by the ancient Hebrews was not that the spirit after death ceased to exist, but that it passed into the underworld, Sheol, the “meeting-place,” as Job describes it, “for all living,”—as well for the tyrant king of Babylon, at whose downfall the earth rejoiced, as for Jacob, or Samuel, or David,—where it entered upon a shadowy, half-conscious existence, devoid of interest and occupation, and not worthy of the name of “life”: “For Sheol cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy faithfulness.” But the darkness which thus shrouded man’s hereafter was not unbroken in the Old Testament; and there are three lines along which the way is prepared for the fuller revelation brought by the gospel. There is, firstly, the limitation of the power of death set forth by the prophets, in their visions of a glorified, but yet earthly, Zion of the future: “for as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” There is, secondly, the conviction uttered by individual Psalmists, that their close fellowship with God implies and demands that they will themselves personally be superior to death: “My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.” And, thirdly, we meet with the idea of a resurrection, though at first as a hope rather than as a dogma, and with the limitation that it is restricted to Israel. “Let thy dead live! let my dead bodies arise!” cries the dwindled nation in its extremity; and the prophet forthwith utters the jubilant response: “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust: for thy dew is as the dew of lights, and the earth shall cast forth the Shades.” But the hope thus triumphantly expressed is limited by the context to Israel; and the same limitation is apparent in the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. Even in Daniel 12:2, the passage which speaks most distinctly, and teaches also a resurrection of the wicked, the terms are still not universal: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” But this verse adds, for the first time, the idea of a future retribution, which also may be signified by the “judgment” to which the Preacher, in Ecclesiastes, more than once solemnly alludes. Such is the point at which the Old Testament leaves the doctrine of a future life.
“Sheol,” in general conception, corresponds to the Greek Hades, and must be carefully distinguished from “the grave.” The distinction is rightly preserved in the Revised Version. It is true there are particular phrases, as “to go down to Sheol,” the general sense of which is sufficiently represented by the English idiomatic expression “to go down to the grave”; and this has accordingly been retained in the Revised Version: but “Sheol” in such cases stands on the margin (e.g., 1 Samuel 2:6, Isaiah 38:10), and elsewhere it is used in the text. Occasionally “hell” has been retained from the Authorized Version (Isaiah 5:14; Isaiah 14:9; Isaiah 14:15); this, it need scarcely be said, is used (as in the Creed) in the old sense of the term, and not in that of a place of torment. The ordinary Hebrew belief was conscious of no distinction in the future lot of the righteous and the wicked. The impossibility of a return, or resurrection, from Sheol was also strongly felt (Job 7:9 f., Job 14:7-12, Jeremiah 51:39; Jeremiah 51:57, Isa. 27:14) the possibility of another life entrances Job (Job 14:14 f., R.V.), but he rejects it as incredible.1 [Note: S. R. Driver, Sermons on the Old Testament, 95.]
4. Among the Jews at the time of Christ.—The Gospels open by revealing to us the Hebrew world and church previous to the infusion of the Christian element; and from them we learn that a future life, and even a resurrection of the dead, had then become a part of the prevalent and popular creed. There was a learned sect, indeed, distinguished by denying them. The Sadducees believed in nothing beyond the present life and material forms; they said “there was no resurrection,” or separate state—“angel or spirit”; but then there was another class, equally learned and more numerous, and having far greater influence with the people, who believed and taught “both” and all. The sister of Lazarus was not indebted to the teachings of Jesus, but to her previous creed, for the promptness with which she replied to His assurance that her brother should rise again, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And this, there can be little doubt, was the general belief of the Jewish people (with the exception referred to), at, and immediately before, the coming of Christ. We find St. Paul, some years afterwards, not only referring to it as such, but describing it as the result of the revelations given through the prophets. “I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come.… Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” I believe “all things which are written in the law and in the prophets; and have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.”
The popular belief of the Jews at the time of Christ regarding the life to come was largely taken from certain Apocalyptic books, of which by far the most important was the Book of Enoch. Now in its eschatology, as in its Christology, the Book of Enoch is based essentially upon the Old Testament; it is an imaginative development and elaboration of elements derived thence. Of distinctively Christian truth, of the truths, that is, which centre in, or radiate from, the doctrine of the Incarnation, it does not exhibit a trace. Its resemblance to the writings of the New Testament is limited to externals. The utmost that can be said of it, in this respect, is that it may have lent to the Apostles, perhaps even to our Lord, certain figures and expressions in which they could suitably and conveniently clothe their ideas. But this is no more than what happened in numberless other instances, in which the teaching of both Christ and His disciples is cast in the mould of contemporary Jewish thought. Even where the resemblance appears to be closest, a careful comparison will disclose significant features of difference. The originality of the fundamental conceptions of Christianity is not impaired by the acknowledgment that Jewish thought, reflecting upon the Old Testament, may have provided symbols for their expression, or, in the case of less distinctive ideas, may even have reached them in anticipation. It remains that, in its full significance, the doctrine of a future life was first enunciated in the gospel; and that it was He who “abolished death,” who also was the first to bring “life and incorruption to light.”
The Difference which Christ made
1. There are three benefits which Christ brought in bringing life and incorruption.
(1) He gave certainty to the hope of life everlasting.—The sombre death-scene is changed by the revelation of Christ through the gospel. The best of the patriarchs never rose to a higher temper than that of placid, solemn resignation to the will of God. They died without the sense of triumph. Their gaze turned to the coming fortunes of their children in the Land of Promise rather than towards the dim realms into which they were passing. Stephen, Paul, and the generation which caught their spirit, anticipated the time of departure with joy and eager hope. A different atmosphere had been created, and over the riot of violence and brutality the Lover of human souls hovered, stretching out His arms to receive disciples into the fellowship of His immortal reign. The kindling of these new hopes had made a revolution. It is true saints sometimes suffer, and in their last days pass through moods of fierce depression, but He who holds the keys is in the shadows of the background and the desolation passes as His footsteps are heard moving in the dread silences. So has Jesus changed the outlook for all who accept His message and rest upon His work. He cannot betray our hope.
Near a small Norman town there is a stream which local superstition has invested with magic virtue. It is said that whoever drinks of its waters will come back to end his life at Gisors. Many a conscript, on his last night at home, has bowed to take a deep draught from the stream and has then been hurried away to fight in wars of which he had little understanding. It is needless to say that amid the fevers of the tropics and on the fire-swept battlefield he has enjoyed no greater security from death than his comrades of other provinces. As the writer who gives the tradition says, “How often must these smiling waters have broken faith!” Jesus who abolishes death and destroys its power is no preacher of vain hopes. He does not beguile us with a pathetic romance. He knows the sure foundations upon which immortality rests, and He has verified His own message in those inscrutable realms from which we shrink back. “He that drinketh of the water that I shall give him, it shall be in him a well of water, springing up unto everlasting life.”1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Strenuous Gospel, 244.]
A striking proof of the different outlook produced by the coming of Christ may be found in the contrast between the epitaphs of the early Christians and those of their pagan contemporaries. In place of hopeless resignation and grief there is glad confidence in the continued life of the departed, and in their safety and well-being. “Live in peace and pray for us.” “Pray for us because we know thou art in Christ.” “Thy spirit rest in God.” “In contrast to the pagan custom, even the noblest of the Christians recounted none of the honours of their offices and rank, except that the initials V. C. (vir clarissimus) C. F. (clarissima femina) were not uncommonly inscribed to indicate membership in the senatorial order. The Christian attitude was that of looking forward beyond the tomb rather than back over the course of earthly honour and success; recessit a saeculo became a familiar formula in the fourth century.”2 [Note: W. Lowrie, Christian Art and Archœology, 67.]
(2) He made it applicable to practical life.—All the powerful and invigorating motives brought to operate on the Christian mind, to animate and to purify it, are drawn from the view given by Christ of the future world, and from Himself as connected with it—as securing it by His passion, preparing it by His power, adorning it with His presence, and filling it with His glory. In the Old Testament, motives for action are drawn from the grave—from its silence and darkness, its weary solitude, its lying beyond the region of “device” and “knowledge,” “wisdom” and “work.” The “fear that hath torment” and that drives to duty predominates over the love that enlarges the heart and makes obedience a joy. In the New Testament, the grave is almost lost in the vision of “the glory that is about to be revealed”; that glory breaks forth, gleams, and gushes over the path of the faithful, compelling them, as it were, to keep looking to the place where their Lord lives, and to rejoice in the prospect of living with Him. The resurrection of the dead; the transfiguration of the living; the “vile body” changed into the likeness of Christ’s “glorious body”; the earthy and corruptible image of the first man giving place to that of the second, “the Lord from heaven”; “the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ”; “the grace that is to be brought unto us,” when “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”; “our gathering together unto him”—these things, and such as these, are the constant burden (or the ceaseless joy, rather) of apostolic pens; the themes with which the writers glow and burn, to which they are continually referring with delight, and by which they endeavour to diffuse throughout the Church the atmosphere of spiritual health—the conservative element of practical obedience.
There is an old legend that after the crucifixion Peter went away, alone, and sat apart in utter misery. After that first outburst of bitter weeping outside Caiaphas’ palace, he had not shed a tear. His heart was full of the horror of his shame. At midnight of Saturday John came to Mary and said, “Mother Mary, I am afraid for Peter. He sits alone in the dark and will not speak, nor eat, nor weep, and his soul seems dead within him.” Then Mary took the seamless robe which the centurion had kindly given her, and said, “Take this to Peter.” So John took it and went back to Peter, whose room was then a little lighted by the coming dawn, and put the garment in his hands, simply saying, “It is His robe.” And after a little Peter buried his face in the well-known garment and wept like a child, penitently now, now bitterly. And, says the legend, it was at that same moment that the resurrection of Jesus took place! This legend enshrines a precious truth.1 [Note: E. P. Parker, in The Hartford Seminary Record, xxiii. 94.]
(3) He gave it forth to the world.—So far as the Jewish belief rested upon the Scriptures of the Old Testament, it had something of a local and national aspect; Christ broke the fetters that bound the Book to the Jewish territory and the Hebrew people, and sent it forth as the inheritance of the world. So far as the belief sprang from general reasoning and logical probabilities, it was the same as any of the theories of the Gentiles—a thing that required Divine confirmation in order to its being invested with regal authority. By His utterances, whose words were “with power,” who “spake as never man spake,” who “gave himself a ransom for all,” and who came to be “the light of the world,” the doctrine He adopted, enlarged, and ratified was stamped with the character of universality, and was commanded to be carried to Jew and Gentile alike.
Whatever Christianity has done, or failed to do, this at least we need not fear to claim for it: that it has availed to plant the belief of our immortality among the deepest and most general convictions of our race: that it has borne even into the least imaginative hearts the unfailing hope of a pure and glorious life beyond the death of the body: that it has shot through our language, our literature, our customs, and our moral ideas the searching light of a judgment to come and the quickening glory of a promised Heaven; that it has sustained and intensified this hope through countless changes of thought and feeling in centuries of quickest intellectual development: and that it is now impossible to conceive the force which could dislodge from so many million hearts the axiom which they have learned from the gospel of the resurrection.2 [Note: Bishop Francis Paget.]
Professor Ed. Gasc Desfosses writes: “A reason for believing in personal immortality to which a certain number of philosophers only accord a very limited credit, but which in my opinion is very important, is the argument furnished by moral anthropology, which may be termed an ethnographic (race) argument. Amongst all people, at all epochs of history (even at prehistoric times), from the rudest and least civilized tribes to those of the highest intellectual development, the belief in an after-existence is everywhere; often this belief is clothed in the most primitive forms, the most materialistic, if we may so express it. But after allowing for the special guidance which philosophical or religious systems, whatever they may be, can give to these beliefs, I think one can say that it is an indication of the existence of an instinct of a high order which is one of the characteristics of humanity. This is what the old traditional philosopher called ‘the proof of universal consent.’ If the name of science is given especially to all research based on facts, it can be said that this argument in favour of the immortality of the soul has a scientific value, as all its strength lies in establishing a fact which is universally human.”1 [Note: R. J. Thompson, Proofs of Life after Death, 206.]
2. What were the means used by Christ to make life and incorruption part of His gospel? How did He accomplish it?
(1) By His words.—It is not that Christ dwells upon the delights of Heaven, thus fixing or stimulating the imagination, as has been done by founders of other religions. It is a striking fact, indeed, that our Lord never seemed ready to satisfy mere curiosity. It has been truly said that He alone could, if He would, have told us all, and yet that He refused to do so. He knew all; He knew also how much we could safely hear, how much it was good for us to know. But He did teach us of God, of His character, of His justice and holiness and mercy. He did teach us of man, of his value, his opportunity, the infinite reach and consequences of his actions. And both these teachings would be meaningless unless man were immortal. He did more; He placed before men an ideal of their life, an ideal to which conscience and the higher spiritual nature at once and involuntarily in every true soul responds—an ideal wholly inconsistent with the theory of man’s nothingness beyond the grave. He went further. Incidentally, but plainly, upon suitable occasions He referred in actual terms to our interest in an eternal world. God “is not a God of the dead,” He said, “but of the living: for all live unto him”; “In my Father’s house are many mansions.… I go to prepare a place for you”; “Father, I will,” He prayed, “that they whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am”; and other passages. Certainly for the Christian such teachings—and they might be almost indefinitely multiplied—leave no room for question but that we are immortal, that this life is but preliminary to another.
Jesus has two ways of teaching. There is His ethical teaching which every man and every woman can take and test for themselves and see if it is true. He has also His speculative teaching, the great beliefs that He has left us and to which He has pledged His word, and He practically says to us: “You can prove that part of My teaching and find it true. Very well, now you have to believe the part that you cannot prove to be true: you have to take a certain part upon My word.”1 [Note: C. Silvester Horne.]
(2) By His deeds.—He gave proof that He held the “keys of death” by unlocking its portals and summoning back to human fellowship those who had passed beyond the reach of the voices of kindred. When He touched the bier at the gate of Nain and said, “Young man, I say unto thee, Arise,” and the dead man “sat up and began to speak”; or when to the man that had been dead four days He “cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth,” and “he that was dead came forth,” Jesus demonstrated that “those other living, whom we call the dead,” have not really ceased to live.
There is no one who can afford to look at the scene [the raising of Lazarus] with indifference. We have all to die, to sink in utter weakness past all strength of our own, past all friendly help of those around us. It must always remain a trying thing to die. In the time of our health we may say—
Since Nature’s works be good, and Death doth serve
As Nature’s work, why should we fear to die?
but no argument should make us indifferent to the question whether at death we are to be extinguished or to live on in happier, fuller life. If a man dies in thoughtlessness, with no forecasting or foreboding of what is to follow, he can give no stronger proof of thoughtlessness. If a man faces death cheerfully through natural courage, he can furnish no stronger evidence of courage; if he dies calmly and hopefully through faith, this is faith’s highest expression. And if it is really true that Jesus did raise Lazarus, then a world of depression and fear and grief is lifted off the heart of man. That very assurance is given to us which we most of all need. And, so far as I can see, it is our own imbecility of mind that prevents us from accepting this assurance and living in the joy and strength it brings. If Christ raised Lazarus He has a power to which we can safely trust; and life is a thing of permanence and joy. And if a man cannot determine for himself whether this did actually happen or not, he must, I think, feel that the fault is his, and that he is defrauding himself of one of the clearest guiding lights and most powerful determining influences we have.1 [Note: M. Dods, The Gospel of St. John. i. 363.]
(3) By His death.—Christ Himself died; He too suffered as all the sons of men must suffer, the dark and sore abasement of death. And the sacred writers, not content with the simple statement of the fact, set it forth under a great variety of phrase, as if to impress upon us that in this, as in all things else, Christ was made like unto His brethren. He not only died, He “tasted death,” He became “obedient unto death,” death had “dominion over him.” For a time “death reigned” even over Him; the Lord of life bowed down before the lord of death. So, on the one hand, is it written. On the other hand we find language of quite another sort. Christ died, but “death no more hath dominion over him”; He died, but it was that “through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.” “The last enemy that shall be abolished is death”; but he shall be abolished, for Christ must reign “till he hath put all his enemies under his feet.” Nay, says the Apostle, death is abolished; already death has surrendered to Christ the keys of Hades and joined the procession of His triumph.
There underlay His death and posture in death a threefold conviction. In the first place He was quite certain that death could not touch His personal existence. “Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” It was absolutely clear to His human spirit that in that moment when He bowed His head, and His spirit passed from His body, and His body lay a lifeless thing upon the cross, He would be living on. And the same conviction is borne in upon His disciples. “Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”
The second thought that comes to us is this, His absolute conviction that not only did it not touch His personality, but it could not touch His union with God. Whatever is involved in the changed conditions of life, one change there is not: as I live in my Father’s hands here, I shall live in my Father’s hands there. God will be to me then, only in a fuller sense than He is now, a supreme reality. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
And, thirdly, there is this conviction, that the life into which He is passing will be a life of peace and rest. “Thou shalt be with me in paradise.” With Me in paradise! What paradise means we cannot entirely grasp while we are still here in the body; and while all our knowledge comes to us as it does through the channels of this body, we cannot get a definite realization of what life is there. But we can get to this—that under those changed conditions the life of the Christian is the life of rest.
Those who die in the fear of God, and in the faith of Christ, do not really taste death; to them there is no death, but only a change of place, a change of state: they pass at once, and instantly, into some new life, with all their powers, all their feelings, unchanged—purified doubtless from earthly stains, but still the same living, thinking, active beings which they were here on earth. I say active. The Bible says nothing about their sleeping till the Day of Judgment, as some have fancied. Rest they may; rest they will if they need rest. But what is the true rest? Not idleness, but peace of mind. To rest from sin, from sorrow, from fear, from doubt, from care—this is the true rest. Above all, to rest from the worst weariness of all—knowing one’s duty, and yet not being able to do it. That is true rest; the rest of God, who works for ever, and yet is at rest for ever; as the stars over our heads move for ever, thousands of miles each day, and yet are at perfect rest, because they move orderly, harmoniously, fulfilling the law which God has given them. Perfect rest, in perfect work; that surely is the rest of blessed spirits, till the final consummation of all things, when Christ shall have made up the number of His elect.1 [Note: Charles Kingsley, The Water of Life, 36.]
The flocks of God
Not only nothing lacked but knew that now
They nevermore could lack. The wolves of want
And Fear-to-Want might never leap the fence
Of those Elysian folds. No sheep need check
His venturous feet on whatsoever path
Invited him, for now no hireling, but
Their very David, shepherd, priest, and king
Protected them. Against their foes his rod
Of power might not fail, nor for themselves
His mercy’s crook. Therefore abiding joy
Was theirs, inherent as the noble calm
Of forest depths, of mountain-girded lakes
Or plains that have no fencing save the sky—
Joy like the barley loaves of Galilee
Most bless’d in being shared, increased by each
Participant until one separate heart
Might out-rejoice the throbbing universe.1 [Note: A. Bunston, The Porch of Paradise, 18.]
(4) By His resurrection.—Our hope of immortality hangs on the risen Christ. One, and only one, do we know who has died whom yet death has been powerless to hold. Christ died, as our loved ones die; but while they come back to us no more, neither speak nor give us any sign, He broke the bonds of death, and showed Himself alive after His passion by many proofs. If Christ has not risen, if the gospel story ends with the cross, and Easter Day be struck out of our calendar, death’s cruel sway is still unbroken, the lord of life is death itself. But if Christ be risen, that iron reign is shattered, the risen Christ is lord of life and death alike. Apart from Him, man’s hope of immortality grows every day more faint and tremulous; with Him it is a hope both sure and steadfast, the anchor of the soul. For, be it remembered, Christ’s resurrection is no solitary incident. “When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” Christ is “the firstborn from the dead,” “the firstfruits of them that are asleep”; and all who put their trust in Him shall share with Him His triumph.
The evidence for the eternal life, as that is revealed to us in Christ, is not to be found in considerations such as ancient and modern philosophy adduced from the nature of the soul, its immortality, its indivisibility, etc.; nor is convincing proof to be found in a bare authoritative message, nor in cases of alleged survival, nor even in the survival of Jesus of Nazareth; for if He had on the third day been resuscitated merely as Lazarus was, and had only shown Himself alive, there had been no thought, no proof, of the eternal life as He Himself explained it to us. The relevant evidence lies in the light shed by His resurrection life, by the character of that life, upon our life here, its aspirations, its incompleteness, its promise, and its hopes—there is, that is to say, a certain congruity between the eternal life as Christ is now declared to be living it and certain elements of our present life here. And when these are properly understood we begin to see in them the seeds of a great tree; and we take courage to believe that, though it be with us still only the day of small things, we are already in certain experiences within the eternal order.
In the risen Christ, as the evangelists have drawn the portraiture with the profound unconsciousness which makes their inspiration a reality to the student, we can faintly understand how the corruptible puts on incorruption; and how the mortal puts on immortality without ceasing to be what it has been hitherto. There is no anxiety on their part to reconcile the sharp contrasts which they record; there is no inclination to emphasize or to set forth the truths which they indicate, but when we compare and combine and ponder the scattered details of their narrative, every fragment is found to grow significant. Now in this trait and now in that, Christ is revealed wholly changed and wholly the same. In Him, the Representative of humanity, we see that the perfection of earthly life is undiminished by death, we see that what seems to be dissolution is only transfiguration; we see that all that belongs to the essence of manhood can exist under new conditions; we see that whatever be the unknown glories and the unimaginable endowments of the after life, nothing is cast off which rightly claims our affection and our reverence in this.
As to the evidential value of the Resurrection with regard to immortality, the relation here is, indeed, more vital than at first appears. The Christian hope is not merely that of an “immortality of the soul,” nor is “eternal life” simply the indefinite prolongation of existence in a future state of being. Keeping, however, at present to the general question of the possibility and reality of a life beyond the grave, it is to be asked what bearing the Resurrection of Jesus has as evidence on this. None whatever, a writer like Professor Lake will reply, for the physical Resurrection is an incredibility, and can prove nothing. Apparitional manifestations are possible, but even these can only be admitted if, first of all, proof is given of the survival of the soul by the help of such phenomena as the Society for Psychical Research furnishes. Others base on the natural grounds for belief in a future life supplied by the constitution of the human soul, eked out, in the case of recent able writers, by appeal to the same class of psychical phenomena. On a more spiritual plane, Herrmann and Harnack would argue that immortality is given as a “thought of faith” in the direct contemplation of Christ’s life in God. A soul of such purity, elevation, and devotion to the Father as was Christ’s cannot be thought of as extinguished in death.
Christ’s earthly history does not end as an optimistic faith would expect. Rather, it closes in seeming defeat and disaster. The forces of evil—the powers of dissolution that devour on every side—seem to have prevailed over Him also. Is this the last word? If so, how shall faith support itself? “We hoped that it was he which should redeem Israel.” Is not the darkness deeper than before when even He seems to go down in the struggle? Will it be doubted that, as for the first disciples, so for myriads since, the Resurrection has dispelled these doubts, and given them an assurance which nothing can overthrow that death is conquered and that, because Jesus lives, they shall live also? Jesus, who came from God and went to God, has shed a flood of light into that unseen world which has vanquished its terrors, and made it the bright home of every spiritual and eternal hope. It is open to any one to reject this consolation, grounded in sure historical fact, or to prefer to it the starlight—if even such it can be named—of dubious psychical phenomena. But will it be denied that for those who, on what they judge the best of grounds, believe the resurrection, there is opened up a “sure and certain hope” of immortality which nothing else in time can give?1 [Note: J. Orr, The Resurrection of Jesus, 271.]
(5) By imparting new life to the believer.—The words spoken to Martha were spoken for us: “Whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die.” The resurrection life is begun already in the believer. A moral and spiritual resurrection has taken place—a rising out of the death of sin into the life of righteousness—which is the pledge of the bodily resurrection. “If the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwelleth in you, he that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall quicken also your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” In this case, therefore, death is “abolished.” The physical death must come in the order of nature; but it is a beginning rather than an ending, a process of life rather than of death. It is the folding up of the shifting tent that we may take up our abode in the enduring mansion. It is the doffing of the beggar’s rags that we may don the princely robes. It is the shuffling off of the mortal coil of flesh that the life within may have room to expand and may receive from God a “spiritual body” which may be a fit organ for the renewed spirit.
Grant that a precious memory may be longer and deeper and stronger than time, still when I think what that furious persecutor of Christ and that weak repudiator of his Master became in the course of their Christian experience,—and they are types of innumerable transformations of character since,—I feel sure that the change was not wrought in them by the power of the sacred memory of a dear, dead friend,—Paul had no such memory of Jesus,—but by their close touch and communion with the quickening spirit of a risen and living Lord. Pressing nearer, coming closer to Him, opening our inmost selves to His sweet influence, suffering Him to make His own impression upon us, who can say what He might work in us and make of us? What newness of life? What hope of glory?
Long time ago and far away,
One Easter morn at break of day,
Friar Francisco, strolling round
The monastery garden, found
Among the rose leaves at his feet
A clod of earth surpassing sweet.
Amazed to find a common bit
Of sod so sweet, he questioned it:
“Whence, then, or how hast thou,” he cried,
Such fragrance?” and the clod replied:
“I was a piece of common clay
Until God willed that where I lay
A lovely rose should bud and bloom.
I breathed and drank in its perfume.
If any fragrance I disclose
It is the sweetness of His rose.”
Francisco meekly bowed his head
And mused awhile: then knelt and said:
“O Thou whose love embraces all
Thy works and creatures, great and small,
I am the clod! The Rose is He
Who loved and gave Himself for me.
By that immortal Flower of Thine
Breathe on this barren soul of mine;
Bestow its fragrance upon me,
The fragrance of its purity.”
Then, as responsive to his prayer,
Came, wafted on the morning air,
The music of the minster bell,
Of joyous choirs and organ’s swell
Francisco raised in glad surprise,
His radiant face and streaming eyes;
Rose from his knees and went his way,
The gladdest of glad souls that day,—
Risen with Christ! as he would say.
3. Last of all notice three great gains that come to us through faith in Him who brought life and incorruption to light.
(1) We obtain deliverance from the fear of death.—To all of us death has its aspect of terror. May we not say that to many of us it has its attitude of intense repulsion? We shrink from dying, and even if we do not our hearts fail us in the thought of what lies beyond. But our acquaintance with death, as we have stood at the death-bed of some of our dear ones, makes us shrink from dying. We sometimes feel that if the drawing of that last breath were with us, as with Christ, a willing act, we should never dare to draw that last breath, it is so awful. But with many there is not only this shrinking from dying, but also a shrinking from what lies beyond.
Now see what Christ has done for us. He has destroyed death and destroyed him who has the power of death. What does this mean? The word in the original does not mean that Christ has made death not to be. That is not true. What it means is this, that Christ has so dealt with death that He has taken out of it all its sting, all its power; men are not influenced by it as they were of old. They look upon it with new eyes; they see death transformed.
(2) We rise above the stoical or agnostic indifference to death.—The preacher of a secular ethic asserts that death is a part of the natural order and ought to be faced with fortitude. And sometimes a man, not in anywise imbruted by sin, meets it without a misgiving, and at the same time confesses no obligation to Jesus the Redeemer. We wonder at the calmness and good-humour with which Socrates drank his cup of hemlock and at the high mettle with which some men, not distinctly religious in spirit, face the end of life. We are amazed at the impassivity with which tens of thousands of Japanese throw away their lives in an outburst of loyalty and patriotism. Perhaps the courage of the man who is without a formulated Christian faith may be inspired by a vague sense of the benignity of the cosmic order. But sin puts a new aspect upon death and invests it with a portentous fatality in human fortunes. If unfallen man had been destined to pass through changes corresponding to physical death, his normal consciousness of God might have made such a crisis into a translation. A vague sense of sin bred the gloom and shrouding, terror-haunted shadows of the Babylonian underworld, and sin arms death with a noxious sting wherever a soul becomes burdened by a sense of demerit and transgression. Man might have died without any sign of trepidation or foreboding if his animal sleep had continued unbroken. When rational beings find out how far they have gone in a downward path, the terror of death starts up within them, and is in no sense a creation of theology. The heir of immortality trembles at the thought of his inalienable heritage. But in redeeming us Jesus took away the power of death. The cross declared the truth of man’s immortality; for if man had been one with the grass of the field Jesus would not have set Himself, at such a cost, to remove a blight on the bloom of the hour. His holy Passion inscribed a new value on human life. By destroying sin He changed a dark, soul-withering, wrathful underworld into a realm filled with peace, forgiveness, goodwill, and the fruits of righteousness.
Christ abolished death. It is so that the Apostles always speak concerning death. It is so always that they bear themselves in the presence of death. They will not crouch before it as a tyrant; neither are they content to stand erect before it, as in the presence of an equal; rather do they exult and triumph over it, as a conqueror over a crushed and broken foe.
(3) We gain new and vastly grander views of life.—Christ rescued the soul from the neglect and contempt that it received from the current Sadducaic teachers, who regarded it as a perishable property. He gave the world the faith which was destined to emancipate the slave, to overthrow feudalism, and to become an ever-living force in the raising and ennobling of mankind. And that faith was not only faith in God, but faith in man—faith in the dignity of man’s own nature, faith in the greatness of his origin and the sublimity of his destiny. It was this faith that begat a new note of earnestness in human affairs. The old heart of this world asked with wonder and hesitation: “If a man die shall he live again?” There were motives that should have bidden him live well even though he answered that question for himself with “an everlasting No.” But this truth remains. Teach a man that he came from God and to God he must return, and he will strive to be worthy of his ancestry and his destiny alike. Teach a man that he comes from dust, that he is but the product of matter, and must return whence he came—
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or sealed within the iron hills,—
and you must not wonder if his life is as low as its origin, and his thoughts do not rise above his circumstances. For the secret of the world’s highest endeavour has been the truth that Christ Jesus brought to light—
Life is real! life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
There is a beautiful passage in “Marius the Epicurean,” in which Walter Pater pictures a Pagan in the early days becoming accustomed to a Christian household, and a little gathering of people who formed one of the Christian Churches, and one thing that impressed itself upon his mind was this: There was the slave sitting beside the others, but the slave had a dignity in the Christian Church that the slave never had out of it, because the slave had laid hold of a great idea. He had received the keys of immortality, he was clothed with a new dignity, he realized the greatness of manhood, and those who were associated with the slave in the same church gave even to the slave the reverence and the respect which such manhood ought to command.1 [Note: C. Silvester Horne.]
Louis xvi. and his beautiful and unfortunate queen died on the scaffold in the Place de la Revolution. The boy who ought to have inherited the throne of France, and who in fact, though he never reigned, has been numbered as Louis xvii. in the roll of monarchs, was left a prisoner. Evil had brought forth evil, as ever. An oppressed people had been roused to a spirit of devilish revenge. The child, it is said, was not only to be kept a prisoner and deprived of whatever rights he might be supposed to possess to the throne of his father, but all that was good in his nature was to be, if possible, destroyed. Evil men placed round him were to train his mind to evil thoughts, his heart to evil feelings, his lips to unlovely words. Naturally he suffered. But now and again, it is said, as his tormentors seemed to go beyond the limits of his endurance, or when God’s voice prevailed in his young soul against them, the unhappy boy would waken up to higher things, and exclaim in anguish, “I can’t say it, I can’t do it, for I was born to be a king!”1 [Note: W. J. Knox Little, Sunlight and Shadow in the Christian Life, 53.]
Life and Immortality
Ashby (L.), To Whom Shall We Go? 133.
Bersier (E.), Twelve Sermons, 230.
Binney (T.), Sermons in King’s Weigh-House Chapel, i. 38.
Briggs (C. A.), The Incarnation of the Lord, 127.
Driver (S. R.), Sermons on the Old Testament, 72.
Ellicott (C. J.), Sermons at Gloucester, 153.
Hall (N.), Gethsemane, 314.
Hopps (J. P.), Sermons of Life and Love, 101.
Home (C. S.), The Doctrine of Immortality, 1.
Jackson (G.), Memoranda Paulina, 124, 129.
Jackson (J. O.), in Sermons for Home Reading, 177.
Lee (R.), Sermons, 374.
Little (W. J. K.), Sunlight and Shadow, 29.
Livesey (H.), The Silver Vein of Truth, 210.
Llewellyn (D. J.), The Forgotten Sheaf, 33.
Macdonnell (D. J.), Life and Work, 474.
Nixon (W.), Christ All and in All, 198.
Paget (F.), Faculties and Difficulties for Belief and Disbelief, 69.
Roberts (R.), The Meaning of Christ, 75.
Selby (T. G.), The Strenuous Gospel, 225.
Symonds (A. R.), Fifty Sermons Preached in Madras, 96.
Vaughan (C. J.), Christ the Light of the World, 201.
Yule (A.), Practical Christian Certainty, 67.
Christian World Pulpit, viii. 328 (W. Brock); xii. 296 (J. B. Brown); xviii. 396 (W. Bull); xxxi. 264 (R. F. Horton); xxxiii. 70 (J. B. Heard); xxxv. 310 (B. F. Westcott); lxv. 225 (C. S. Horne); lxvii. 260 (G. Body); lxxvii. 257 (G. A. Johnston Ross).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Easter Day and Season, vii. 346 (G. Jackson).
Hartford Seminary Record, xxiii. 89 (E. P. Parker).
Homiletic Review, liii. 217 (M. Dix); lxiii. 308 (S. P. Cadman).