Great Texts of the Bible
Life beyond Death
If a man die, shall he live?—Job 14:14.
Job has just given utterance to an intense longing for a life beyond the grave. His abode in Sheol is thought of as in some sense a breach in the continuity of his consciousness, but even that would be tolerable, if only he could be sure that, after many days, God would remember him. Then that longing gives way before the torturing question of the text, which dashes aside the tremulous hope with its insistent interrogation. It is not denial, but it is a doubt which palsies hope. But though he has no certainty, he cannot part with the possibility, and so goes on to imagine how blessed it would be if his longing were fulfilled. He thinks that such a renewed life would be like the “release” of a sentry who had long stood on guard; he thinks of it as his swift, joyous “answer” to God’s summons, which would draw him out from the sad crowd of pale shadows and bring him back to warmth and reality. His hope takes a more daring flight still, and he thinks of God as yearning for His creature, as His creature yearns for Him, and having “a desire to the work of his hands,” as if His heaven would be incomplete without His servant. But the rapture and the vision pass, and the rest of the chapter is all clouded over, and the devout hope loses its light. Once again it gathers brightness in the nineteenth chapter, where the possibility flashes out starlike, that “after my skin hath been thus destroyed, yet from my flesh shall I see God.”
When standing in the shadows, the words of Ingersoll seem none too melancholy: “Life is a narrow vale between the mountain peaks of two eternities.… The skies give back no sound.… We cry aloud and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.” Such were the great infidel’s words at his brother’s open grave. O, how many anguished hearts, like his, have cried up into the skies and for answer caught only the echo of their own lamentation! In the “narrow vale” how many pilgrims have lost their way! Against those unyielding peaks how many souls have bruised and broken their wings! Earth’s most fevered search and bitterest agonies are in that ancient phrase: “If a man die, shall he live again?”1 [Note: G. C. Peck, Ringing Questions, 35.]
In a sad poem, entitled “The Great Misgiving,” William Watson voices modern unsettlement and belief on this question. Writing there of our life as a feast at which we have banqueted, he asks why the worms should not have their feast too upon us, once we are done with it all. In soul-withering doubt, he estimates that it is impossible to know, when we have done with this life, whether we shall pass into the ampler day with its heavenly light, or whether we shall slip into new prospects, or fall sheer—a blinded thing! His closing words, sounding like the shutting of the iron gate of a prison-house on man’s soul, are—“There is, O grave, thy hourly victory; and there, O death, thy sting!”2 [Note: P. Wilson, The Great Salvation, 265.]
Though bleak winds blow and earth grows drear,
When autumn’s golden days depart,
We scan the skies
With fearless eyes,
For winter brings no blight to him
Who holds the summer in his heart.
Though death’s chill shadows hover near,
And billows wild about us roll,
In faith’s sweet calm
We lift our psalm,
For death no terror wears for him
Who mirrors heaven in his soul.3 [Note: Mary B. Sleight.]
The answers to Job’s question may be reduced to three, according as the inquirers are guided by Reason, the Old Testament Scriptures, or the Revelation in Christ.
The Answer of Reason
The greatest philosophers of Greece speculated on the nature and destiny of man. They felt there was something Divine in human nature, as well as something which seemed to them to be only of the earth. The mortality of the body they could not deny, nor did they wish to do so. They conceived of it not as the necessary expression and organ of the soul, but as a burden, a prison, a tomb; it was their one hope and desire that man’s immortal part might one day be delivered from it. The Greek philosophers, too, as well as the great poets, rose above that moral neutrality which characterizes the instinctive faith in man’s survival. They saw rewards and punishments in the once undistinguishing future. Heroic men were admitted to some kind of blessed existence in Elysian fields; while the conspicuously bad—giants, tyrants, lawless profligates—were tormented in some kind of hell. Such ideas, however, were confined to a limited circle; they did not interest themselves in the common people; and however much we may admire the nobleness of the poets and philosophers of Greece, it is not to them, any more than to the priests of Egypt, that the world is indebted for the hope of immortality.
1. The foundation of a belief in a future life is embedded in human nature. In the transient course of things there is yet an intimation of that which is not transient. The grass that fades has yet in the folded and falling leaves of its flower that perishes the intimation of a beauty that does not fade. The treasures that are frayed by the moth and worn by the rust are not as those in which love and faith and hope abide. There is a will that in its purpose does not yield to mortal wrong. There is a joy that is not of emulation. There is a freedom that is other than the mere struggle for existence in physical relations, and is not determined in its source or end by these finite conditions.
I have heard that the mortar in the walls of Sancta Sophia, at Constantinople, still retains some traces of the perfume with which it was mixed when built a thousand years ago. But let us make the figure complete. Suppose the fragrance of a rose had the same property in relation to the rose that the spirit has in relation to the body. What if the fragrance controlled the rose? What if it were endowed with such a superior nature as to be able to disseminate a rich, rare, and wondrous perfume even though the rose were faded, and fallen, and broken, and dead? What if the odour had a consciousness of its own, apart from the flower, able to say as the rose falls to fragments, “I am an odour still!” Would we not regard it as somewhat less likely that such a fragrance could perish for ever—could be diffused into nothing?1 [Note: C. C. Albertson, Death and Afterwards, 41.]
Huxley’s consciousness of the difficulties involved in his views on life and destiny caused him to advocate a resolute front against the prospect of future nothingness. “We are grown men, and must play the man”—
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
He admits that a ray of light may perchance steal in upon the dreadful gloom:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles.
The natures that will find comfort in this scanty outlook are few indeed, and later teachers of the evolution school have revolted against its dismal predictions. Mr. Fiske says, “For my own part, I believe in the immortality of the soul, not in the sense in which I accept the demonstrable truths of science, but as a supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God’s work.” Le Conte is more emphatic still. He holds that, without spirit—immortality—this increasingly beautiful cosmos, which has run its ageless course with manifest purpose and value, would be precisely as though it had never been—an idiot tale signifying and portending blank nothingness.2 [Note: S. Parkes Cadman, Charles Darwin and other English Thinkers, 76.]
2. The instinct of immortality is reinforced by man’s innate sense of justice. He feels that something is needed to complete this life elsewhere. Immortality has been named “the great prophecy of reason”—a phrase which is in itself an argument. We cannot look into ourselves without finding it. The belief is a part of the contents of human nature: take it away, and its most unifying bond is broken; it has no longer an order or a relation; the higher faculties are without function: eyes, but nothing to see; hands, but nothing to lay hold of; feet, but no path to tread; wings, but no air to uphold them, and no heaven to fly into.
I do not know that there is anything in nature (unless indeed it be the reputed blotting out of suns in the stellar heavens) which can be compared in wastefulness with the extinction of great minds: their gathered resources, their matured skill, their luminous insight, their unfailing tact, are not like instincts that can be handed down; they are absolutely personal and inalienable, grand conditions of future power unavailable for the race, and perfect for an ulterior growth of the individual. If that growth is not to be, the most brilliant genius bursts and vanishes as a firework in the night. A mind of balanced and finished faculties is a production at once of infinite delicacy and of most enduring constitution; lodged in a fast-perishing organism, it is like a perfect set of astronomical instruments, misplaced in an observatory shaken by earthquakes or caving in with decay. The lenses are true, the mirrors without a speck, the movements smooth, the micrometers exact: what shall the Master do but save the precious system, refined with so much care, and build for it a new house that shall be founded on a “rock”?1 [Note: James Martineau.]
Kant, the great moralist, based his demonstration of the doctrine of immortality on the demands of the conscience. Conscience bids us aim at perfection. But perfection is not reached upon the earth. If the earth be all, if death ends everything, then we are overweighted in our moral nature. Conscience needs an enduring arena for its operation. Conscience demands immortality.
The facts of life confirm the hope
That in a world of larger scope—
What here is faithfully begun
Will be completed, not undone.2 [Note: T. E. Ruth.]
If no atom of matter is ever lost, no unit of force ever wasted—if nothing is destroyed, although all is changed—will the Father fail to preserve the gift of immortality in His children? Every true gift of God preaches this sublime truth. We have felt sometimes, when we have listened to beautiful music, that it must be an echo from those “choirs invisible” of which our great composers have often dreamed. And as of music, so of poetry; for the real poet is by nature a seer and a prophet, and his noblest lines are full of the consciousness of the Eternal. He takes his illumination from—
The light that never was on sea or land.
Whichever way we look, into whatever realm of life we enter, the immortal truth is seen shining more and more brightly unto the perfect day. Life, not death—restoration, not ruin—growth, not decay,—these are our rich inheritance and possession.1 [Note: Henry White.]
For love, and beauty, and delight,
There is no death, nor change; their might
Exceeds our organs’, which endure
No light, being themselves obscure.2 [Note: Shelley.]
3. There is in every soul a crystal skylight opening out toward the upper realms; but if we do not keep it clean the vision of those realms will grow dim until it is obscured from us altogether. Sincerely and practically to believe that we are immortal, we must more or less feel ourselves immortal; but this feeling of immortality will seldom visit the bosom of the man who does not honestly try to live on earth the life of heaven. Emerson has truly said that from a low type of moral life a slaughter-house style of thinking invariably results—a style of thinking, that is, which butchers men’s fairest ideals and noblest hopes, because it cannot realize how fair and noble they are. Spiritual things are not likely to be discerned by the animal man.
It is the hardest thing in the world for a child to believe that the dead are no more. Wordsworth has shown us this with beautiful simplicity, in his poem of the little cottage-girl, to whom the sister and the brother lying in the churchyard were as really alive and pleased with the songs she sang to them, as were the two who dwelt at Conway and the two who had gone to sea.
Whatever crazy sorrow saith,
No life that breathes with human breath
Has ever truly longed for death.
‘Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant,
Oh, life, not death, for which we pant,
More life, and fuller, that I want.3 [Note: Tennyson, “Two Voices.”]
The Answer of the Old Testament
1. In the Old Testament a great forward step is taken. We feel that we have left the twilight for the dawn. Among heathen races faith in immortality rested on conceptions of man’s nature, in the Old Testament it rests on God’s character. He is the Eternal Righteousness, and His faith is pledged to man whom He calls to live in fellowship with Himself. All things may seem to be against a man; his friends may desert him, circumstances may accuse him; but if he is righteous, God cannot desert him, and if he must die under a cloud, even death will not prevent his vindication. His Eedeemer lives, and one day he shall again see God. And to see God is to have life, in the only sense which is adequate to the Bible use of the word.
It is quite true to say that Israel had hardly any ideas about the future, and shrank in horror from those it had; but Israel had God, and that was everything. Israel knew that there was One only, the living and true God, from everlasting to everlasting, infinite in goodness and truth; Israel knew that God had made man in His own image, capable of communion with Him, and only blessed in such communion; to Israel, to see good was all one with to see God; with God was the fountain of life, in God’s light His people saw light. This faith in God was greater than Israel knew; it could not be explored and exhausted in a day; it had treasures stored up in it that only centuries of experience could disclose, and among them was the hope of immortality. The believing nation of Israel, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, unconsciously carried the key of promise in its bosom, even when it was in the dungeon of Giant Despair.1 [Note: J. Denney, The Way Everlasting, 182.]
“Oh, little bulb uncouth,
Ragged and rusty brown,
Have you some dew of youth?
Have you a crimson gown?”
“Plant me and see
What I shall be,—
God’s fine surprise
Before your eyes!
A body wearing out,
A crumbling house of clay!
Oh, agony of doubt
And darkness and dismay!
Trust God and see
What I shall be,—
His best surprise
Before your eyes!”
2. The Old Testament revelation is at the best hazy. The descriptions given of Sheol are numerous and depressing. Man existed in it, but did not live. He had no communion there either with the living God or with living men. It was a pale transcript of life, but not life in reality. It was a realm of darkness, dust, and endless silence, unbroken by the vision of God or the voice of praise. The best men shrank from it with horror. The feeling with which they regarded it will be sufficiently illustrated by these lines from the Psalm of Hezekiah: “I said, in the noontide of my days I shall go into the gates of Sheol.… I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.… But thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of nothingness, for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. For Sheol 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: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.”
It goes without saying that Job’s most far-reaching and comprehensive declaration falls unspeakably short of that abolition of death, and bringing of life and immortality to light, accomplished by the gospel of Christ; but what it lacks in fulness and breadth, it gains in the burning intensity and glow out of which it springs, and the sublime motives which urge and impel him, not only to speak, but also to covet a monumental and immortal pulpit for his words. His sayings form a window through which we look into his soul; a lit lamp by whose clear ray we see the workings of his mind, and enter into partnership, not only with his ideas, but with himself, as those ideas are born in his soul, and take their place in his life.1 [Note: J. Clifford, Daily Strength for Daily Living, 318.]
The Answer of Christ
1. When Christ entered on His ministry of teaching, He found certain doctrines existing in Jewish theology; they were either imperfect or germinal truths. He found a doctrine of God, partial in conception; He perfected it by revealing the Divine Fatherhood. He found a doctrine of sin and righteousness turning upon external conduct; He transferred it to the heart and spirit. He found a doctrine of judgment as a single future event; He made it present and on-going. He found a doctrine of reward and punishment, the main feature of which was a place in the under and upper worlds where pleasure was imparted and pain inflicted; He transferred it to the soul, and made the pleasure and pain to proceed from within the man, and to depend upon his character. He found a doctrine of immortality, held as mere future existence; He transformed the doctrine, even if He did not supplant it, by calling it life, and connecting it with character. His treatment of this doctrine was not so much corrective, as accretive. He accepts immortality, but He adds to it character. He puts in abeyance the element of time or continuance, and substitutes quality or character as its main feature. Hence He never uses any word corresponding to immortality (which is a mere negation—unmortal), but always speaks of life. The continuance of existence is merely an incident, in His mind, to the fact of life. It follows inevitably, but is not the main feature of the truth.
A little child whose angel still beholds the face of the Father, does not repine over the past, or sigh for the future. The very law of innocence and perfection, whether in child or angel or God or perfect man, tends to exclude the sense of time. Continuance becomes a mere incident; the main and absorbing thought is quality of life. When Christ speaks of eternal life, He does not mean future endless existence; this may be involved, but it is an inference or secondary thought; He means instead fulness or perfection of life. That it will go on for ever is a matter of course, out it is not the important feature of the truth.1 [Note: T. T. Munger, The Freedom of Faith, 265.]
Dr. Young of Kelly (the famous chemist who first extracted paraffin oil from shale) died on 13th May 1883. On the Sunday following his funeral, Dr. Robertson preached at the evening service in Skelmorlie United Presbyterian Church, Dr. Goold of Edinburgh preaching in the forenoon. Mr. Boyd, the minister of the church, writes: “In the course of his sermon Dr. Goold insisted strongly that the doctrine of immortality is taught in the Old Testament, and quoted a number of passages in support of his position. Dr. Robertson had arranged to preach in the evening from the text, ‘Christ hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,’ and the psalms, hymns, and anthem had been chosen with this text in view. But after the forenoon service he came to me in anxiety and said, ‘I must change my subject; if I preach the sermon I intended, Dr. Goold will think I am controverting his teaching.’ All afternoon he was restless, evidently thinking over other sermons, but unable to fix on one. When the hour of evening service had come he told me that he was still undecided. I replied, ‘Keep to your subject, the choir cannot now change the hymns.’ He consented to do so. It was evident that he had taken the position that immortality was not clearly taught in the Old Testament. With great tact he succeeded in avoiding the appearance of contradiction between him and the morning preacher, by saying in well-chosen words, which I cannot reproduce, something to this effect: ‘Doubtless there are references to the doctrine of immortality in the Old Testament, as was so well put before you in the forenoon. But just as he whose death we are this day remembering with sorrow found embedded in the caverns of the earth the dark substance by which he has illuminated the homes of rich and poor in many lands, so did Christ bring to light the doctrine of a future life. The shale was in the earth long before, but it was Dr. Young who revealed its illuminating power. Even so the doctrine of immortality, embedded in Old Testament passages, was practically unrevealed until He came who brought life and immortality to light.’
“I can give you no idea of the beautiful touches by which Dr. Robertson wrought out the thought I have only indicated; but so skilfully was it done that I think no one in the church ever dreamt of anything but completest harmony between the two preachers.”1 [Note: Dr. James Brown, in Life of W. B. Robertson of Irvine, 428.]
2. Christ put the copestone on the doctrine of immortality by illustrating it in His own person. He could point to Himself as the living embodiment of His teaching. He came and entered into the living stream of our life. He was linked on to the past; human experience moulded His human character; He goes to the marriage feast; He meets sin, and disease, and death and sorrow; He is buffeted by the waves of this troubled world; He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And then, as He passed through death, sin and sorrow have no power to leave their marks upon His nature; He corresponds now to all that is spiritual, peaceful, heavenly in human nature. He dwells with the spirit of man, and passes out of our sight ever to live to make intercession for us. So it has been, so it is with each of us. God puts each individual soul into this wide-reaching life, whose tides sweep by us out of a past lost in the mists of history, and which eddy away into eternity. We are attached as it were to this great life and we never can cease to be, or lose our personality. To this life we correspond as natural bodies; to the life hereafter we shall correspond as spiritual bodies. And so we draw life from our surroundings.
Christ makes poetry of the suggestions we see in the world. The demands we see in human nature He sets to Divine music. We know simply the letters of the alphabet of life; some lofty souls can see certain notes of music. He arranges the letters and the notes in such marvellous melody that the angels burst into anthems, and the singers by the crystal sea sing a new song, and the earth hears the echo of heaven’s triumph. Death is abolished. In Christ immortality is revealed. He was dead, and behold, He is alive for evermore. Because He lives, we shall live also. His resurrection involves ours. Our continuity is implied in His. We cannot die while He lives.1 [Note: T. E. Ruth.]
In some of the cathedrals of Europe, on Christmas Eve, two small lights, typifying the Divine and the human nature, are gradually made to approach one another until they meet and blend, forming a bright flame. Thus, in Christ, we have the light of two worlds thrown upon human destiny. Death, as the extinction of being, cannot be associated with Him; He is life—its fulness and perfection, and perfect life must be stronger than death. The whole bearing of Christ towards death, and His treatment of it, was as one superior to it, and as having no part or lot in it. He will indeed bow His head and cease to breathe in obedience to the physical laws of the humanity He shares, but already He enters the gates of Paradise, not alone but leading a penitent child of humanity by the hand. And, in order that we may know He simply changed worlds, He comes back and shows Himself alive; for He is not here in the world simply to assert truth, but to enact it.2 [Note: T. T. Munger, The Freedom of Faith, 268.]
When Livingstone asked the natives in Central Africa as to what became of their noble river, they, having no idea of the sea, replied, “It is lost in the sands.” We know another wonderful river, the river of human life which rushes through these metropolitan streets, spreads far and wide, and flows on through ages—the mystic river whose bubbles are cities, whose music is language, whose jewels are thoughts, whose shells are histories. What becomes of this river of life? Says scepticism sadly, “The clergyman, the undertaker, and the sexton see the last of it in the sands.” But we can never be content with such a solution, which is no solution. The Lord Jesus alone enables us to give a bright interpretation to the dark problem. He has brought life and immortality to light. He has put into our lips the great cry, “The sea! The sea! “Beyond the sands of time we behold gleams of the great bright ocean of eternity, and through the mist comes the music of many waters. Our Lord was manifest in the flesh, He died, was buried, and rose again that He “might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” We take our harp from the willow. Our mourners are musicians, our graves are filled with flowers, our epitaphs are hallelujahs.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Education of the Heart, 25.]
3. Our future life is secure in Christ. Linked to Him we cannot perish. Christians believe in their own resurrection, because they believe in the resurrection of Christ. But faith does not depend upon—it does not originate in nor is it maintained by—the resurrection of Christ, simply as a historical fact. The resurrection of Jesus is not simply a fact outside of us, guaranteeing in some mysterious way our resurrection in some remote future. It is a present power in the believer. He can say with St. Paul—Christ liveth in me—the risen Christ—the Conqueror of Death—and a part, therefore, is ensured to me in His life and immortality. This is the great idea of the New Testament whenever the future life is in view. It is indeed very variously expressed. Sometimes it is Christ in us, the hope of glory. Sometimes it is especially connected with the possession, or rather the indwelling, of the Holy Spirit. “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.” It is easy to see that the religious attitude here is precisely what it was in the Old Testament, though, as the revelation is fuller, the faith which apprehends it, and the hope which grows out of it, are richer. Just as union with God guaranteed to the Psalmist a life that would never end, so union with the risen Saviour guaranteed to the Apostles, and guarantees to us, the resurrection triumph over death.
“March 11th, 1870.—I have been astounded by a most influential member of the Church saying to me, ‘What is it to me whether Christ worked miracles or rose from the dead! We have got the right idea of God through Him. It is enough, that can never perish!’ And this truth is like a flower that has grown from a dunghill of lies and myths! Good Lord, deliver me from such conclusions! If the battle has come, let it; but before God I will fight it with those only, be they few or many, who believe in a risen, living Saviour. This revelation of the influence of surface criticism has thrown me back immensely upon all who hold fast by an objective revelation. Nothing can possibly move me from Jesus Christ, the living Saviour, the Divine Saviour, the Atoning Saviour, whatever be the philosophy of that atonement.”1 [Note: Memoir of Norman Macleod, ii. 321.]
The ancients fabled that Orpheus the god of music was drowned, and his lyre lost in the sea; hence water is musical. What the Greeks meant by this legend it is impossible to say; but perhaps they intended it to signify that the secret of harmony has perished from the world. Be that as it may, when the Son of God plunged into this gulf of dark despair, He recovered more than the lost lyre of Orpheus: He gave us again the secret of spiritual and eternal music, whatever may be the confusions and discords of earth and time.2 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Education of the Heart 26.]
Albertson (C. C.), Death and Afterwards, 31.
Barton (G. A.), Christian Teaching in the Old Testament, 209.
Campbell (R. J.), City Temple Sermons, 161.
Cooper (T. J.), Love’s Unveiling, 105.
Denney (J.), The Way Everlasting, 175.
Jerdan (C.), Pastures of Tender Grass, 408.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Esther, Job, 43
Munger (T. T.), The Freedom of Faith, 237.
Newton (J.), The Problem of Personality, 116.
Peek (G. C.), Ringing Questions, 31.
Wilson (P.), The Great Salvation, 263.
The Christian World Pulpit, xlii. 105 (Varley); xlvii. 259 (Fielding); lxxi. 249 (Ruth).
The Church of England Pulpit, lxii. 251 (Synnott).