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 The Christian Life Everlasting

(This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin's Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915)

Various factors combine to make it hard for men today to believe vividly in life beyond the grave. Our science has emphasized the closeness of the connection between our spiritual life and our bodies. If there be an abnormal pressure upon some part of the brain, we lose our minds; an operation upon a man's skull may transform him from a criminal into a reputable member of society. It is not easy for us to conceive how life can continue after the body dies. Diderot put the difficulty more than a century ago: "If you can believe in sight without eyes, in hearing without ears, in thinking without a head, if you could love without a heart, feel without senses, exist when you are nowhere and be something without extension, then we might indulge this hope of a future life."

Our modern view of the universe no longer leaves us a localized heaven and hell, and we have not the lively imaginations of those older generations to whom the unseen world was as real as the streets they walked and the houses in which they lived. One goes into such a burying place as the Campo Santo at Pisa, or reads Dante's Divina Comedia, and the painters who adorned the walls with frescoes depicting the future abodes of the blessed and the damned, and the poet who actually travelled in thought through Hell and Purgatory and Paradise, were as keenly aware of these places as of neighboring Italian towns. We lack a definite neighborhood in which to locate the lives that pass from our sight.

Religious authority is based, today, upon experience, and obviously experience can give no certain knowledge of things future. We are disposed to treat all pictures of the life to come, whether in the Bible or out of it, as the projections of men's hopes. They are such stuff as dreams are made on.

And at present we are absorbingly interested in the advance of our world's life; we dream of better cities here, rather than of some golden city beyond our horizon; we care far more intensely for lasting earth-wide peace that shall render impossible such awful orgies of death as this present war, than for the peace of a land that lieth afar. Men think of the immortality of their influence, rather than of what they themselves will be doing five hundred years hence, and of the social order that shall prevail in the earth in the year 2000, rather than of the social order of the celestial country.

Immortality is not so much disbelieved, as unthought of. But death is always man's contemporary; and no year goes by for any of us without regretted partings. And if we stop to think of it, we are all of us under sentence, indefinitely reprieved, if you will, but with no more than an interval between ourselves and the tomb. To every thoughtful person the question is forced home, "If a man die, shall he live again?"

What did Jesus Christ contribute towards answering our question?

He made everlasting life much more necessary to His followers than to the rest of men. By bringing life to light and showing us how infinitely rich it is, He kindled in us the passion for the second life, and rendered immortality indispensable for Christians.

Christ enhances every man's worth in his own eyes. We find that we mean so much to Him and to His God and Father, that we come to mean infinitely more to ourselves. "If," writes a modern essayist, "a man feels that his life is spent in expedients for killing time, he finds it hard to suppose that he can go on forever trying to kill eternity. It is when he thinks on the littleness that makes up his day, on the poor trifles he cares for—his pipe, his dinner, his ease, his gains, his newspaper—that he feels so cramped and cribbed, cabined and confined, that he loses the power of conceiving anything vast or sublime—immortality among the rest. When a man rises in his aims and looks at the weal of the universe, and the harmony of the soul with God, then we feel that extinction would be grievous." And it is just this uplift into a new outlook that men find in Jesus Christ. A Second Century Christian, writing to his friend, Diognetus, characterizes Christianity as "this new interest which has entered into life." We look upon each day with a fresh expectancy; we view ourselves with a new reverence. The waste wilderness within, from which we despaired of producing anything, must under Christ's recreating touch become an Eden, where we feel

Pison and Euphrates roll
Round the great garden of a kingly soul.
 

But is this emparadised life to be some day thrown aside? G.J. Romanes, whose Christian upbringing had instilled in him the distinctively Christian appreciation of the value of his own life, when his scientific opinions robbed him of the hope of immortality, wrote: "Although from henceforth the precept 'to work while it is day' will doubtless but gain an intensified force from the terribly intensified meaning of the words that 'the night cometh when no man can work,' yet when at times I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as I now find it, at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang of which my instinct is susceptible."

And Jesus increases the significance of people for each other. He possessed and conveys the genius for appreciation. He came that life might become more abundant, and every human relation deeper, tenderer, richer. It is to love that death is intolerable. Professor Palmer of Harvard, a few years ago, delivered a lecture upon Intimations of Immortality in the Sonnets of Shakespere, in which he showed that, when a man finds himself truly in love, mortality becomes unthinkable to him. And for Christians love and friendship contain more than they do for other men. Christ takes us more completely out of ourselves and wraps us up in those to whom we feel ourselves bound. He makes life touch life at more points, life draw from life more copious inspirations, life cling to life with more affectionate tenacity. He roots and grounds us in love, and that is to root us in the souls of other men; then to tear them from us irrevocably—parents, children, husband, wife, lover, beloved, friend,—is to leave us of all men most pitiable.

Love—the prisoned God in man—
Shows his face glorious, shakes his banner free,
Cries like a captain for eternity.
 

Again, Christ gives men an ideal for themselves which in their threescore years and ten, more or less, they cannot hope to achieve: "Be ye perfect as your Father." Jesus Himself, in whom we see the Father, is for us that which we feel we must be, yet which we never are. Immortality becomes a necessity to any man who seriously sets himself to become like Jesus. Our mistakes and follies, the false starts we make, the tasks we attempt for which we discover ourselves unfit, the waste of time and energy we cannot repair, the tangled snarls into which we wind ourselves and which require years to straighten out, render this life absurd, if it be final. It cannot be more than a series of tentative beginnings, and if there be no continuation, the scheme of things is a gigantic blunder. If Jesus does no more than supply us with an ideal hopelessly beyond our attainment and inspire us irresistibly to set out on its quest, He is no Saviour but a Tormentor.

The fiend that man harries
Is love of the best.
 

We are doomed to a few score years of tantalizing failure, and victory is forever impossible for sheer want of time.

Further, Jesus gives men a vision of a new social order—the Kingdom of God—a vision so alluring that, once seen, they cannot but live for its accomplishment. We are fascinated with the prospect of a world where hideous war is unthinkable; where none waste and none want, for brotherhood governs industry and commerce; where nations are animated by a ministering patriotism; and where every contact of life with life is redemptive. But the more fervently we long for this golden age, the more heartily and indignantly we protest against present stupidities and brutalities and injustices, the more passionately we devote ourselves to realize the Kingdom, the more titanic this creation of a new order appears. Nothing we know can remain unaltered; but the smallest improvement takes an unconscionably long while to execute. Haste means folly, and we have to tell ourselves to go slowly. Things as they are have a fixity which demands moral dynamite to unsettle. We ache with curiosity to see how our plans and purposes will work out; we would give anything to be in at the finish. But there is death. We just begin, and then—!

Mr. Huxley, a thorough Christian so far as his social hope went, though without a Christian's faith, wrote to John Morley, as age approached, "The great thing one has to wish for as time goes on is vigor as long as one lives, and death as soon as vigor flags." But the allusion to death set his mind on a painful train of thought, and he continued: "It is a curious thing that I find my dislike to the thought of extinction increasing as I get older and nearer the goal. It flashes across me at all sorts of times with a horror that in 1900 I shall probably know no more of what is going on than I did in 1800. I had sooner be in hell a good deal—at any rate in one of the upper circles, where the climate and company are not too trying. I wonder if you are plagued in this way." He was repeating the experience of the old Greeks as it is expressed in Pindar's Fourth Pythian: "Now this, they say, is of all griefs the sorest, that one knowing good should of necessity abide without lot therein." It is glorious to hold up before ourselves the splendors of the age that is to be, to dream of our cities made over in ideals, of our land as a world-wide servant of righteousness and peace, of a whole earth filled with truth and beauty and goodwill; and glorious to give ourselves unremittingly to bring this consummation nearer. But can we be content with no personal share in it? Are our lives merely fertilizer for generations yet unborn?

Oh, dreadful thought, if all our sires and we
Are but foundations of a race to be,—
Stones which one thrusts in earth, and builds thereon
A white delight, a Parian Parthenon,
And thither, long thereafter, youth and maid
Seek with glad brows the alabaster shade,
And in processions' pomp together bent
Still interchange their sweet words innocent,—
Not caring that those mighty columns rest
Each on the ruin of a human breast,—
That to the shrine the victor's chariot rolls
Across the anguish of ten thousand souls!
 

Tennyson once said to Professor Tyndall that, if he believed he were here simply to usher in something higher than himself in which he could have no personal part or lot, he should feel that a liberty had been taken with him. And when that something higher is the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed, its devotees cannot forego their longing to share in its perfected life.

And, above all, Jesus opens up for us an intimacy with God which is both unbearable and incredible without the hope of its continuation beyond the grave. To enter with Jesus into sonship with the Father, to share God's interests and sympathies and purposes, to become the partner of His plans and labors, and then to think of God as living on while we drop out of existence, is the crowning misery, or rather the supreme confusion. Jesus would have pointed to some heartbroken man or woman, like Jairus or the widow of Nain or the sisters at Bethany, and said, "If ye then, being evil, know how to care so intensely for your kindred, and would give your all to keep them with you forever, how much more shall your heavenly Father insist on having His own with Him eternally?"

At Professor Huxley's own request three lines from a poem by his wife are inscribed upon his tombstone:

Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep;
For still He giveth His beloved sleep,
And if an endless sleep He wills, so best.
 

But in such a sentence what possible meaning can be put into the expression "His beloved"? Can we conceive of God as really loving us, taking us into His secrets, using us in His purposes, letting us spend and be spent in the fulfilment of His will, and then putting us to an endless sleep? If Jesus leads us into the life with God which we Christians know, He renders immortality indispensable if God is to maintain His own Self-respect.

Others may do without everlasting life; to some an endless sleep may seem welcome; life has been to them such a mistake and a failure, that they would gladly be quit of it forever; but to followers of Jesus its continuance is a passionate and logical longing. Ibsen puts into Brindel's mouth the words: "I am going homewards. I am homesick for the mighty Void; the dark night is best." Jesus acclimatizes man's spirit to a far different home, and sets in his heart an altogether different eternity. So insistent are the demands of our souls for the persistence of life with our God in Christ, that "if we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable."

Already we have passed into Jesus' second great contribution toward answering our question of the second life. He assures us of it because of the character of the Father we come to know through Him. Jesus' faith in His own resurrection was based on His personal experience of God. The words from a Psalm, which the early Church applied to Him, sound like an utterance some disciple may have overheard Him repeating:

Thou wilt not leave My soul in the grave,
Neither wilt Thou suffer Thy devoted One to see corruption.
Thou madest known unto Me the ways of life;
Thou shalt make Me full of gladness in Thy presence.
 

Love is stronger than death, and for Jesus God is love. It was this which made Him "the God of the living." Jesus could not imagine Him linking Himself with men, becoming the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and allowing them to become mere handfuls of dust in a Hittite grave. His love would hold them in union with Him forever. Jesus "abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel"—through the good news concerning God. When He succeeds in convincing us that the universe is our Father's house, it requires no further argument to assure us of its "many mansions." The unending fellowship with Jesus' God of all His true children is an inevitable inference from what we know His and our God to be. We do not base our confident anticipation of everlasting life merely upon some saying of Jesus, which we blindly accept because He said it, nor even upon the report of His own resurrection from the grave; these are too slight foundations for our assured expectation. We rest it firmly upon what we know of His and our Father. Immortality is not a mere guess nor a fervent wish; we have solid and substantial experience of what God is from all that He has done for His children and for ourselves. And experience worketh hope. Faith looks both backwards and forwards, to what God has done and to what He consistently must do; and all the while faith looks upwards, and in His face reads a love that will not let us go.

The Easter victory of Jesus is the vindication of His own faith. God, as Lord of heaven and earth, is involved in our world's history; He has been responsible for its outcome from the beginning. If He let the truest Son He ever had end His career in defeat and failure, He is a faithless and untrustworthy God. Calvary was the supreme venture of faith; Jesus staked everything on the responsiveness of the universe to love, in the trust that the God of the universe is love. "If Christ hath not been raised, your faith is vain." But if the seeming triumph of wrong over right, of ignorance over truth, of selfishness over sacrifice, which took place at Golgotha be but the prelude to a vaster victory, then the Lord of earth has cleared Himself, and proved Himself worthy of the confidence of His children.

And of the fact of that victory not only the first disciples are witnesses, but every man and woman since in whose life Christ has been and is a present force. Explain as we may the details of the resurrection narratives, conceive as we please of the manner in which Christ made Himself known to His followers in His post-resurrection appearances long ago, we know that He is "no dead fact stranded on the shore of the oblivious years," but a living force in our world today, and that Easter triumphs are reenacted wherever His Spirit animates the lives of men. History again and again has demonstrated that His labor has not been vain in God; that the whole structure and fabric of things responds to trust and love; that careers such as His cannot be holden of death, but find an ally in the universe itself, which sends them on through the years conquering and to conquer. That demonstration in history confirms Jesus' trust in God, sets a public seal which the whole world can see to the correctness of His testimony to Him whom He found in the unseen, and in whose cause He laid down His life.

And Jesus has made still another contribution to the answer of our question: it is through Him that we form our pictures of the life to which we look forward so certainly. The New Testament expectations center about Jesus Himself: "With Me in paradise;" "Where I am, there also shall my servant be;" "I go to prepare a place for you;" "So shall we ever be with the Lord." Men who had experienced Christ's hold upon them, through all the divisive circumstances of life, had no doubt of His continuing grasp upon them through death; they spoke of the Christian dead as "the dead in Christ"—the dead under His transforming control. Not death nor life could separate them from His love.

Since we see God, the Lord of heaven, in Jesus, the only and all-satisfying knowledge we have of the future life is that it will accord with the will of the Father of Jesus Christ. Of its details we can merely say, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." But we know God in Christ: we are certain of many things that cannot be included in a life where His heart has its way; the city of our hope has walls; but it has also gates on all sides and several gates on every side, and we are certain of its hospitability to all that accords with the mind of Christ. That which renders the life within the veil not all dark to us is the fact that "the Lamb is the light thereof." There is a connection between it and our life today; the one Lord rules earth and heaven; and Him we know through Jesus. Humbly acknowledging that we know but in part, glad that the future has in store for us glorious surprises, we are convinced that for us there waits a life in God, in which His children shall attain their Christlike selves in Christlike fellowship one with another and with Him, their Christlike Father. More than this who cares to know? More than this, for what can Christians wish?

 

 

 

 

 

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