If they would give their objections any strength, they ought to urge, that they have applied their utmost endeavour, and have used all means of information, even those which the church recommends, without satisfaction. Did they express themselves thus, they would indeed attack religion in one of its chief pretensions. But I hope to shew, in the following papers, that no rational person can speak after this manner, and I dare assert that none ever did. We know very well how men, under this indifference of spirit, behave themselves in the case. They suppose themselves to have made the mightiest efforts towards the instruction of their minds, when they have spent some hours in reading the scriptures, and have asked some questions of a clergyman concerning the articles of faith. When this is done, they declare to all the world they have consulted books and men without success. I shall be excused, if I refrain from not telling such men (what I have often told them) that this neglect of theirs is insupportable. It is not a foreign or a petty interest which is here in debate; we are ourselves the parties, and all our hopes and fortunes are the depending stake.
The immortality of the soul is a thing which so deeply concerns, so infinitely imports us, that we must have utterly lost our feeling, to be altogether cold and remiss in our enquiries about it. And all our actions, or deigns, ought to bend so very different a way, according as we are either encouraged or forbidden to embrace the hope of eternal rewards, that it is impossible for us to proceed with judgment and discretion, otherwise than as we keep this point always in view, which ought to be our ruling object and final aim.
Thus is it our highest interest, no less than our principal duty, to get light into a subject on which our whole conduct depends. And therefore, in the number of wavering and unsatisfied men, I make the greatest difference imaginable between those who labour with all their force to obtain instruction, and those who live without giving themselves any trouble, or so much as any thought, in this affair.
I cannot but be touched with a hearty compassion for those who sincerely groan under this dissatisfaction; who look upon it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who spare no pains to deliver themselves from it, by making these researches their chief employment and most serious study. But as for those who pass their life without reflecting on its issue, and who, for this reason alone, because they find not in themselves a convincing testimony, refuse to seek it elsewhere, and to examine to the bottom, whether the opinion proposed be such as we are wont to entertain by popular simplicity and credulity, or such as though obscure in itself, yet is built on solid and immoveable foundations, I consider them after quite another manner. The carelessness which they betray in an affair where their person, their interest, their whole eternity, is embarked, rather provokes my resentment than engages my pity; nay, it strikes me with amazement and astonishment; it is a monster to my apprehension. I speak not this as transported with the pious zeal of a spiritual and rapturous devotion. On the contrary, I affirm, that the love of ourselves, the interest of mankind, and the most simple and artless reason, do naturally inspire us with these sentiments; and that to see thus far, is not to exceed the sphere of unrefined, uneducated men.
It requires no great elevation of soul to observe, that nothing in this world is productive of true contentment; that our pleasures are vain and fugitive, our troubles innumberable and perpetual; and that after all, death, which threatens us every moment, must, in the compass of a few years, (perhaps of a few days) put us into the eternal condition of happiness, or misery, or nothing. Between us and these three great periods, or states, no barrier is interposed but life, the most brittle thing in all nature; and the happiness of heaven being certainly not designed for those who doubt whether they have an immortal part to enjoy it, such persons have nothing lest but the miserable chance of annihilation, or of hell.
There is not any reflection which can have more reality than this, as there is none which has greater terror. Let us set the bravest face on our condition, and play the heroes as artfully as we can, yet see here the issue which attends the goodliest life upon earth!
Tis in vain for men to turn aside their thoughts from this eternity which awaits them, as if they were able to destroy it, by denying it a place in their imaginations. It subsists in spite of them; it advanceth unobserved: and death, which is to draw the curtain from it, will, in a short time, infallibly reduce them to the dreadful necessity of being forever nothing, or forever miserable.
We have here a doubt of the most affrighting consequence, and which therefore to entertain may be well esteemed the most grievous of misfortunes; but, at the same time, it is our indispensable duty not to lie under it without struggling for deliverance.
He then who doubts, and yet seeks not to be resolved, is equally unhappy and unjust. But if withal he appears easy and composed; if he freely declares his indifference; nay, if he takes a vanity in professing it, and seems to make this most deplorable condition the subject of his pleasure and joy, have not words to fix a name on so extravagant a creature. Where is the very possibility of entering into these thoughts and resolutions? what delight is there in expecting misery without end? what vanity in finding one's self encompassed with impenetrable darkness? or what consolation in despairing forever of a comforter?
To sit down with some sort of acquiescence under so fatal an ignorance, is a thing unaccountable beyond all expression: and they who live with such a disposition ought to be made sensible of its absurdity and stupidity, by having their inward reflections laid open to them, that they may grow wise by the prospect of their own folly. For behold how men are wont to reason, while they obstinately remain thus ignorant of what they are, and refuse all methods of instruction and illumination!
Who has sent me into the world, I know not; what the world is, I know not, nor what I am myself. I am under an astonishing and terrifying ignorance of all things. I know not what my body is, what my senses, or my soul. This very part of me which thinks what I speak, which reflects upon every thing else, and even upon itself, yet is as mere a stranger to its own nature as the dullest thing I carry about me. I behold these frightful spaces of the universe with which I am encompassed; and I find myself chained to one little corner of the vast extent, without understanding why I am placed in this seat rather than any other; or why this moment of time, given me to live, was assigned rather at such a point, than at any other of the whole eternity which was before me, or of all that which is to come after me. I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which devour and swallow me up, like an atom; like a shadow, which endures but a single instant, and is never to return. The sum of my knowledge is, that I must shortly die; but that which I am most ignorant of, is this very death which I feel myself unable to decline.
As I know not whence I came, so I know not whither I go; only this I know, that at my departure out of the world, I must either fall forever into nothing, or into the hands of an incensed God, without being capable of deciding which of these two conditions shall eternally be my portion. Such is my state; full of weakness, obscurity, and wretchedness. And from all this I conclude, that I ought therefore to pass all the days of my life, without considering what is hereafter to befall me; and that I have nothing to do but to follow my inclinations, without reflection or disquiet, in doing all that which, if what men say of a miserable eternity prove true, will infallibly plunge me into it. Tis possible I might find some light to clear up my doubts; but I shall not take a minute's pains, nor stir one foot in the search of it. On the contrary, I am resolved to treat those with scorn and derision who labour in this inquiry with care; and so to run, without fear or foresight, upon the trial of the grand event; permitting myself to be led softly on to death, utterly uncertain as to the eternal issue of my future condition.
In earnest, tis a glory to religion to have so unreasonable men for its professed enemies; and their opposition is of so little danger, that it serves to illustrate the principal truths which our religion teaches. For the main scope of Christian faith is to establish these two principles, the corruption of nature; and the redemption by Jesus Christ. And these opposers, if they are of no use towards demonstrating the truth of the redemption, by the sanctity of their lives, yet are, at least, admirably useful in shewing the corruption of nature, by so unnatural sentiments and suggestions.
Nothing is so important to any man as his own estate and condition; nothing so great, so amazing, as eternity. If therefore we find persons indifferent to the loss of their being, and to the danger of endless misery, tis impossible that this temper should be natural. They are quite other men in all other regards: they fear the smallest inconveniences; they see them as they approach, and feel them if they arrive; and he who passeth days and nights in chagrin or despair, for the loss of employment, or for some imaginary blemish in his honour, is the very same mortal who knows that he must lose all by death, and yet remains without disquiet, resentment or emotion. This wonderful insensibility with respect to things of the most fatal consequence, in a heart so nicely sensible of the meanest trifles, is an astonishing prodigy, an unintelligible inchantment, a supernatural blindness and infatuation.
A man in a close dungeon, who knows not whether sentence of death is passed upon him, who is allowed but one hour's space to inform himself concerning it, and that one hour sufficient, in case it have passed, to obtain its reverse, would act contrary to nature and sense, should he make use of this hour not to procure information, but to pursue his vanity or sport. And yet such is the condition of the persons whom we are now describing: only with this difference, that the evils with which they are every moment threatened do infinitely surpass the bare loss of life, and that transient punishment which the prisoner is supposed to apprehend. Yet they run thoughtless upon the precipice, having only cast a veil over their eyes, to hinder them from discerning it, and divert themselves with the officiousness of such as charitably warn them of their danger.
Thus, not the zeal alone of those who heartily seek God demonstrates the truth of religion, but likewise the blindness of those who utterly forbear to seek him, and who pass their days under so horrible a neglect. There must needs be a strange turn and revolution in human nature, before men can submit to such a condition; much more, ere they can applaud and value themselves upon it. For, supposing them to have obtained an absolute certainty that there was no fear after death, but of falling into nothing; ought not this to be the subject rather of despair than of jollity? And is it not therefore the highest pitch of senseless extravagance, while we want this certainty, to glory in our doubt and distrust?
And yet after all, it is too visible, that man has so far declined from his original nature, and as it were departed from himself, as to nourish in his heart a secret seed plot of joy, springing up from these libertine reflections. This brutal ease or indolence, between the fear of hell and of annihilation, carries somewhat so tempting in it, that not only those who have the misfortune to be sceptically inclined, but even those who cannot unsettle their judgment, do yet esteem it reputable to take up even a counterfeit diffidence. For we may observe the largest part of the herd to be of this latter kind, false pretenders to infidelity, and mere hypocrites in atheism. There are persons whom we have heard declare that the genteel way of the world consists in thus acting the bravo. This is that which they term throwing off the yoke, and which the greater number of them profess, not so much out of opinion, as out of gallantry and complaisance.
Yet, if they have the least reserve of common sense, it will not be difficult to make them apprehend, how miserably they abuse themselves, by laying so false a foundation of applause and esteem. For this is not the way to raise a character, even with worldly men, who as they are able to pass shrewd judgment on things, so they easily discern, that the only method of succeeding in our temporal affairs is to approve ourselves honest, faithful, prudent, and capable of advancing the interest of our friends; because men naturally love nothing but that which some way contributes to their use and benefit. But now what benefit can we any way derive from hearing a man confess, that he has eased himself of the burden of religion; that he believes no God, as the witness and inspector of his conduct; that he considers himself as absolute master of what he does, and accountable for it only to his own mind? Will he fancy that we shall be hence induced to repose a greater degree of confidence in him hereafter, or to depend on his comfort, his advice or assistance in the necessities of life? Can he imagine us to take any great delight or complacency, when he tells us, that he doubts whether our very soul be any thing more than a little wind and smoke; nay, when he tells it us with an air of assurance, and a voice that testifies the contentment of his heart? is this a thing to be spoken of with pleasantry? or ought it not rather to be lamented with the deepest sadness as the most melancholic reflection that can strike our thoughts?
If they would compose them to serious consideration, they must perceive the method in which they are engaged to be so very ill chosen, so repugnant to gentility, and so remote even from that good air and grace which they pursue, that, on the contrary, nothing can more effectually expose them to the contempt and aversion of mankind, or mark them out for persons defective in parts and judgment. And indeed should we demand from them an account of their sentiments, and of the reasons which they have to entertain this suspicion in religious matters, what they offered would appear so miserably weak and trifling, as rather to confirm us in our belief. This is no more than what one of their own fraternity told them with great smartness, on such an occasion. If you continue (says he) to dispute at this rate, you'll infallibly make me a Christian. And the gentleman was in the right: for who would not tremble to find himself embarked in the same cause with so forlorn, so despicable companions.
And thus it is evident; that they who wear no more than the outward mask of these principles are the most unhappy counterfeits in the world; in as much as they are obliged to put a continual force and constraint on their genius, only that they may render themselves the most impertinent of all men living.
If they are heartily and sincerely troubled at their want of light, let them not dissemble the disease. Such a confession could not be reputed shameful; for there is really no shame, but in being shameless. Nothing betrays is much weakness of soul, as not to apprehend the misery of man, while living without God in the world: nothing is a surer token of extreme baseness of spirit, than not to hope for the reality of eternal promises: no man is so stigmatized a coward, as he that acts the bravo against Heaven. Let them, therefore, leave these impieties to those who are born with so unhappy a judgment as to be capable of entertaining them in nearest. If they cannot be Christian men, let them however be men of honour. And let them, in conclusion, acknowledge that there are but two sorts of persons who deserve to be styled reasonable, either those, who serve God with all their heart, because they know him; or those who seek him with all their heart, because as yet they know him not.
If then there are persons who sincerely inquire after God,, and who, being truly sensible of their misery, affectionately desire to be rescued from it, it is to these alone that we can in justice afford our labour and service, for their direction in finding out that light of which they feel the want.
But as for those who live without either knowing God, or endeavouring to know him, they look on themselves as so little deserving their own care, that they cannot but be unworthy the care of others: and it requires all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them to such a degree, as even to abandon them to their own folly. But since the same religion obliges us to consider them, while they remain in this life, as still capable of God's enlightening grace; and to acknowledge it as very possible, that, in the course of a few days, they may be replenished with a fuller measure of faith than we now enjoy, and we ourselves, on the other side, fall into the depths of their present blindness and misery; we ought to do for them what we desire should be done to us in their case, to intreat them that they would take pity on themselves, and would, at least, advance a step or two forward, if perchance they may come into the light. For which end it is wished, that they would employ, in the perusal of this piece, some few of these hours which they spend so unprofitably in other pursuits. Tis possible they may gain somewhat by the reading; at least they cannot be great losers. But if any than apply themselves to it, with perfect sincerity, and with an unfeigned desire of knowing the truth, I despair not of their satisfaction, or of their being convinced by so many proofs of our divine religion as they will here find laid together."