Page images
PDF
EPUB

though the most important of all (and therefore more discernible at a higher elevation), yet never absolutely bare and alone, but rather, like the granite foundations of the eternal hills, clothed with forests of usefulness and flowery meads of beauty and affection. Instead of this, the popular idea for millenniums has been, that the moment a man dies, he goes, not into a higher School with its lessons and its play (often the most instructive of lessons), but into a Divine Police-court, where the presiding Magistrate,- Minos or Osiris, or He who frowns behind the altar of the Sistine,-is always sitting in readiness to send him to the dread prison on one hand, or to dole him out the arrears of pay for his faith and virtues on the other. When that sentence has been passed, all that follows throughout eternity is (according to the same conception) merely a sequel thereof-either punishment or reward under different forms of suffering or enjoyment.

Of course among persons accustomed to think freely for themselves, such views as these carry no authority; but it would be well if, before turning our attention to a study of the problems connected with the possible conditions of a future life, we could shake ourselves altogether free of them and start afresh. That which the past has really bequeathed to us is an immense consensus of the human race in favour of the two opinions, “ that the Soul of a man never dies," and that “ Justice will be done hereafter, if not here.” The value of this almost universal testimony is (as I have endeavoured to shew

in the preceding part of this essay) very great indeed. But beyond these two great general affirmations, the voice of the ages can say nothing to us of the smallest weight concerning either the details of the life to come, or of the special form in which justice is to be fulfilled. The soul may have consciousness of its own immortality, and the moral sense may point to the final triumph of justice as the needle points to the magnetic pole. But the details of how, when and where, the future life is to be spent, or how justice is to be fulfilled, are matters regarding which it is impossible that we can have any consciousness; and such ideas as we inherit concerning them must needs have come to us through the exercise of the mythopoic faculty of men of old, elevated as time went on to the rank of Divine revelations. And it is to be remarked that as these ideas (e.g. that of a New Jerusalem) were evolved in accordance with the psychology, politics, æsthetics, and all other conditions of the community which gave them birth, so they inevitably bear the stamp of their age, and we entangle ourselves in endless anachronisms by retaining them now, even with widest latitude of Swedenborgian type-making. Few readers of Gibbon will forget the scorn wherewith that

“Lord of irony, the master-spell

Which stung his foes to hate which grew from fear,” describes the origin of the Apocalyptic vision. In the state of society in the Roman empire in the first and second centuries, a town was the centre of all delights, and the country was considered a place of banishment. “A City,” he says, “was accordingly constructed in the skies of gold and jewels.” Now, in England, on the contrary, in the nineteenth century, nothing can be further from our notions of peace and repose than a walled town, even if provided with gates of the singularly incongruous material of pearls. Rather, when Martin some years ago desired to paint the “Plains of Heaven," he innocently sketched a handsome English pleasure-ground, with a distant view—let us say of the Weald of Kent, or of the Shropshire woodlands with the Welsh mountains in the horizon. Had he attempted to depict the Blessed walking up and down on the trottoirs of a gold-paved street, his critics would have treated him as a caricaturist of the legend of Whittington, rather than as an illustrator of the Vision of the Seer of Patmos. And yet it may be questioned whether, in the minds of thousands amongst us, orthodox and heterodox, some dim idea of the Apocalyptic City does not even yet arise whenever we think of another life; an idea perhaps more directly derived in our case from Bunyan than from St. John. It would be superfluous to remark further, how the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body, which accommodated itself to the pneumatology of the Egyptians and Jewish Pharisees, still colours the notions of persons who have (so far as they are conscious) entirely renounced any such belief, and who are quite aware of the insolubility of the problems concerning Spirit and Matter, of which the ancients cut the knot with so much decision. If we would avoid following in the wake of perfectly unseaworthy speculations, we must needs let all these notions drift away from us at once and for ever.

Another order of errors from which it is also very desirable we should clear our minds are those which arise from the old view of the Creator as a Deus ex Machina, always ready miraculously to interfere with the order of things, and bring His moral will suddenly to bear upon, and snap the chain of physical events. If the soul does, as we believe, survive the dissolution of the body, then that survival is assuredly a natural event, prepared for even from the first beginnings of our physical existence, and taking place normally as the newborn child enters the world. The child comes into the light out of darkness, and we seem to pass into darkness out of light, but the one transition must be as natural as the other. It is among the “infinite possibilities of Nature"-Nature, whose Laws are the changeless Habits of God—that the Immortality of the human soul must be henceforth anticipated; not among the beneficent freaks of an erratic Omnipotence.

Excluding these ancient misleadings, and endeavouring to stand face to face with the bare fact that the Self of man must be disembodied if it survive death, what are the conditions of existence conceivable under such severance ? It is a truism all too familiar, that an unborn babe might prophesy of the flowers and stars which are shortly to meet its eyes, as well as a living man tell of the things which lie beyond the tomb. But I apprehend that the utter, unilluminable darkness which conceals the whole outer environment of the future life (a darkness which no apocalypse could lighten), does not close quite so impenetrably as has been generally supposed over the conditions of the inner world which we must needs carry with us. Our position is in a measure like that of a blind man who should be told that on a certain day he should both receive his sight and suffer amputation of his arms. What receiving his sight may be, he cannot in the remotest degree guess or understand, but he may form some, not wholly false, conception of what it will be to lose his limbs. At death, a portcullis falls on the senses, the appetites are cut off at their roots, and the affections are subjected to a strain of changed conditions hitherto untried. Perhaps still more intimate changes may be involved, and with the loss of its brain-tablet, Memory may alter its character. In any case, our whole past world is gone, whatever new one may, either immediately or at a remoter future, take its place and supply us with fresh sensations and ideas. Like creatures which have hitherto inhabited the waters, we quit the element in which we have lived and moved and had our being; and whatever we have henceforth to experience must come from another. Yet we carry ourselves into the new element, selves which must be affected most importantly by the transition, but which cannot, in the nature of things, lose their individuality, or change instantaneously their ethical status. In the

« PreviousContinue »