« PreviousContinue »
stration. But something will be gained if I succeed in warning off a few inquirers from false paths which lead only to disappointment, and point out to them, if not the true argument, yet the true method of argument, whereby such satisfaction as lies within our reach may be obtained. Perhaps I may have the greater advantage in speaking of the belief in a future life because for many years of my own earlier life, while slowly regaining faith in God after the collapse of supernaturalism, I failed to discover any sufficient reason for such trust, and in the desire to be loyal to truth deliberately thrust it away even under the pressure of a great sorrow. It is possible, therefore, that I may understand better than most believers in the doctrine why many honest, and not irreligious, minds are at this moment mournfully shutting out that gleam of a brighter world which should cheer and glorify the present; and perhaps I may also have learned from experience how some of their difficulties may be met.
It is needless to discuss the importance of the belief of mankind in a Life beyond the grave. Whether, with a recent distinguished writer, we look on the threatened loss of it as the most perilous of our “Rocks Ahead," on which the whole order of society may make shipwreck, or whether (as I am more disposed to think) the danger lies in the gradual carnalization of our nature which would follow the extinction of those ennobling hopes which have lifted men above mere animalism and given to Duty and to Love an infinite extension,-in either
case it is hard to speak too gravely of the imperilment of that which has been, since the beginning of history, perhaps the most precious of the mental heirlooms of
To conjure up a picture of the desolation which such a loss must bring to the hearts of the bereaved, and the dreary hopelessness of the dying and the aged, would be to give ourselves superfluous pain. Nor must it be forgotten that it does not ask a great deal, if not to kill such a faith (which is perhaps impossible), yet to maim and paralyze it, so that it shall become practically powerless to comfort or to elevate. The great majority of mankind rather catch belief and disbelief from those around them than originate them on their own account; and the disbelief of even a few of their neighbours is often sufficient to take away all confidence in the affirmative verdict even of the wisest and best. Dr. Johnson said he was “injured by knowing there was one man who did not believe in Christianity;" the knowledge was just so far a deduction from the universality of consent in which even that intellectual giant found repose. It would probably need only that five per cent. of the population should publish their conviction that there is no Future State, to make the greater part of the remainder so far lose reliance upon it, as to become quite insensible to its moral influences.
But while thoughtful persons are generally agreed on the great importance of the doctrine in question, it has perhaps scarcely been noticed how it is inevitably destined to form the turning-point of the future religious history of our race. The dogma of a Future Life differs from other articles of faith notably in being indissoluble in the alembic of interpretation wherein so many of our more solid beliefs have of recent years been rarefied into thin air. “To be, or Not to be,” is very literally the question of questions, to which must needs be given a categorical response. Either we, ourselves, in innermost identity, shall exist after the mortal hour, or we shall not so exist; there is no third contingency. With respect to our faith in God, there are immeasurable shades between the definite and fervent conviction of the existence of a true Father in Heaven, and the admission that there lies behind Nature some “Unknown and Unknowable” Mind, Will, or, perchance, blind and unintelligent Force, which we choose to call by the same sacred name. Owing to the voluntary and involuntary obscurities of human language, and the dimness of human thought, there will always exist a misty territory between the confines of Theism and Atheism; and it may be only too easy to slip down imperceptibly, range after range, from one to the other, only discovering at last how far we have descended when the sunlight which shone on the mountain-tops has faded away utterly among the dark shadows of the abyss. But there is scarcely any such danger of thus playing fast and loose with our beliefs as regards Immortality. It is true that among those alchemists of creeds of whom I have already spoken, many of whom can find the pure gold of moral truth in every base and heavy superstition, while others concoct an Elixir of Life out of the hellebore and the nightshade of denial and despair, there have not failed to be some who have taught that man, if mortal in the concrete, and doomed individually to perish in the dust, may yet call himself an Immortal Being; immortal, that is, in his abstract Humanity, in the Grand-être of which he forms a part, and which will survive the falling off of such a mere fraction of it as himself; or (if this consolation be not amply sufficient) that he will yet live in his posterity, in his works of beneficence, in the books wherewith he may have instructed mankind. But even to very sanguine souls it must (I should suppose) be nearly hopeless thus to attempt to give the change to our personal hopes and desires concerning a Life after Death, by reminding us of hopes for other people, which, far from being a novel equivalent for our own, have always hitherto been taken as concurrent therewith and additional thereto; and which actually bring with them, when the doctrine of individual Immortality is denied, only the mournful question of how far it may remain an object of hope at all that a Race should prolong its existence when every soul which composes it is destined to perish incomplete, unfinished, a failure like the ill-turned vase which the potter casts aside on the heap to be broken up as worthless. There can be truly, then, only the response of Aye or No to the question, “When a man dieth, shall he live again ?” and on the decision whether most men say “Aye,” or say “No,” will depend, in yet undreamedof measure, the moral condition of coming generations.
In the following Essay I have stated to the best of my ability the grounds on which I think an affirmative answer to the great enigma may be given by all those who believe in a Righteous as well as an Intelligent Ruler of the world. I have no desire to blink the fact that it is on the moral attributes of God that the whole question appears to me to hinge; and that, without the help of Religion, (of a real religion, which takes for its corner-stone that God is good and just, not a philosophy which merely admits the hypothesis of an intelligent Force behind Nature,) the reasons for denial seem to me to preponderate altogether over those in favour of affirmation.
But here is the great, the tremendous difficulty. How is that belief in the Righteousness and Benevolence of God to be established so as that we may build thereon securely our hopes of a Life to come? Nay, how is it in these days of earthquake to be kept firm enough for the purpose-higher even than of affording us immortal hope -of giving us now a Father in Heaven to adore, and in allegiance to whose holy will we may be content to live and die? It is impossible to hide from ourselves that the obstacles in the way of a clear faith in the absolute Goodness of God have grievously multiplied upon us in our generation. Perhaps genuine fidelity should call on us to rejoice that they have also at last found a most lucid and coherent expression in the mournful legacy left us by the great philosopher lately departed, wherein the yet formless questionings, the "ghastliest doubts” of thousands of souls have taken shape, and will stand