A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 18



IP a man die, shall he live again? That is the question that has haunted men for ages. We do not think of it much in youth, for then life seems to stretch endlessly before us and time means simply new opportunity. It is when the years pass that we see, as the ancients did, that time is the all-destroyer, devouring all her children; that nothing seems secure, whether the works of man's hands, the objects of his love, his hope of high achievement, or his own existence.

We are dealing here with a bigger question than that of individual survival after death; it is the problem of time and the Eternal, of change and the enduring. Paul saw it as the problem of the seen and the unseen. "For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." Often it has been conceived as the question of this world and the next. What we think about the future life, then, must have as its background the question about these two worlds and their relation to each other.

Otherworldliness is one answer to this question. Primitive Christianity showed a good deal of this otherworldly temper. "Our citizenship is in heaven" wrote Paul. "The world passeth away, and the lusts thereof," we read in John. In part the explanation of this lay in the fact that they believed that this age was at its end, that in a little while the Lord would return and the new age would begin. When Jesus did not thus return in visible form and the world went on its old way, the influence of this apocalypticism waned, but other influences entered to cause men to depreciate this life and center their thought on the life to come. Christianity was profoundly affected by a dualism that was Oriental and Hellenistic, rather than coming from the Old Testament or Jesus. Men believed in a world of the spirit, pure and unchanging, which existed above the world of time. The material was evil, or at least worthless. So asceticism came in to support otherworldliness. Men spoke of "these vile bodies" and sang "this world's a wilderness of woe, this world is not my home." One must remember, too, that for vast numbers of men life was a hard and constant struggle against hunger and disease, so this world became a place from which to escape, and religion moved largely around the fear of hell and hope of heaven.

In sharp contrast, the modern age is marked by this-worldliness. The change began with the Renaissance. The humanists of that age did not deny the other world, but they insisted upon the claims of this, upon the freedom of the mind to explore and know, upon man's right to enjoy the beauties and values of this life. Modern science followed. It changed man's attitude to the world from one of helplessness and fear to one of knowledge and mastery. With the tools that it furnished man attacked the job of making this world a good place in which to live, multiplying its comforts and pleasures. More and more man's whole view of the world and life was affected. A naturalistic philosophy saw this world as the only real world; a secularistic way of life saw this world's goods as the only objects of interest and value.

Christian thought has come to a truer understanding of these two worlds and their relation. It is neither this-worldly or other-worldly. It refuses to set matter against spirit, time against the eternal, this world against the next. This world is not evil or meaningless. We are not to hate it or flee it, or, Stoiclike, merely to endure it. There is an order for us to learn, a beauty to admire. Food and drink, strength of body and faculties of mind, the normal interests and appetites of body and spirit, the varied human fellowships, all are good for us to enjoy.

But Christian thought declares that no man can either understand this world or enjoy it aright unless he sees it in the light of the other. Time must be understood in the setting of the eternal—not an eternal that is far off, a world above or an age beyond, but an eternal that is here and now. The tragedy of those who see only this world is that they miss this world as well as the other. Only the eternal can give meaning to time. It alone can make us masters instead of slaves, deliver us from fear, and give us security and courage and strength. We enjoy each material gift doubly because we take it from God. We are not dependent upon it, because we have the gifts and resources of the spirit. We do not overvalue these things, because religion gives us perspective. And we know how to make these things serve the higher ends.

The great word, then, is not "Present" or "Future"; it is the Eternal which takes in both now and then. But if we believe thus in a world of the Eternal, a world of spirit, of supreme values and reality, then two other considerations follow. (1) There is a judgment upon this world which we must acknowledge. Evil forces are here as well as good. Time and change continually destroy. The world of time cannot be the last word of a good God. Hence (2) the ground for our belief in another and enduring world, a world in which the good here achieved shall be secure and the highest good waits to be achieved. In the purpose of God this world plays its significant part, but that purpose must include more for his finite creation than what we see about us.


What is the Christian belief in immortality and on what grounds is it held? The most common mistake in discussing belief in the future life is to imagine that it can be considered by itself. But whether we consider what immortality means or why we hold it, we must see it in the larger setting already indicated. No discussion of the "indestructibility of the soul," no "demonstrations" of spiritualism by themselves can determine this matter. A doctrine of immortality can only be reached on the basis of our total belief about God and the world.

Faith in immortality is not mere belief in continued existence after death. It is not existence but life with which we are here concerned, not mere duration but quality. "To believe in immortality is one thing," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, "but, first of all, it is needful that we believe in life." Eternal life rather than immortality expresses the Christian faith. It is not a matter, first of all, of life after death. Man's life is eternal when he enters into a living relation with the eternal world, that is, with God; and this life may be here and now. This is the theme of the fourth Gospel: "He that believeth hath eternal life. . . . And this is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God" (John 6. 47; 17. 3). Christianity's interest is in achieving life, not preserving existence. Mere existence as such has no value; but if it is without meaning here, why be concerned about it in the hereafter?

Here lies the inadequacy of spiritualism. It is the claim of spiritualism that it lifts the whole matter of the future life from mere speculation and wishful thinking to a scientific level, that it demonstrates the fact of individual survival by communications of a physical kind with those who have died. We may here pass by the examination of such proofs, remembering only how easy deception is in this field. The important point is that even if such communication be conceded, the real question is not settled. Spiritualism at most would only prove some kind of conscious existence for some indefinite period of time. Why should such an existence have any more meaning in another world than it has in this? Something more is needed. The center about which spiritualism revolves is the soul and its survival; the center about which Christianity revolves is God, God and the meaning which life has through faith in God.


Clearly it follows from all this that the final and supreme ground for belief in the future life is belief in'God. The whole question comes at last to this:

What is the ultimate reality in this world, matter or spirit, things or God? And is this God good, is this Spirit personal, one who knows us and cares? If there is a God like this, then that is secure which we cherish most highly—truth, love, righteousness, friends; and these are secure, not just now, but forever. They have come into being in this world of time, but they belong to the Eternal. The question is not settled by looking at man, by asking about the indestructibility of the soul, or bringing up analogies from nature about spring that follows winter and life that renews itself from death. We must believe in God if we are to believe in immortality. Tennyson begins his "In Memoriam" at the right point, with the God of power who is also just.

"Thine are these orbs of light and shade;

     Thou madest life in man and brute;

      Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot

Is on the skull which thou hast made.


"Thou wilt not leave us in the dust;

     Thou madest man, he knows not why;

     He thinks he was not made to die;

And thou hast made him: thou art just."

With such a God, there follows a conception of man which also points the way to immortality. To some it seems presumptuous that man should single himself out among the myriad creatures great and small as alone worthy of survival, and absurd to see in man the one exception to a seemingly universal law of decay and death. But the situation is different if we begin with God and his purpose instead of with man. The God whom we find through Jesus Christ is Creative Good Will, giving life to his creatures. The highest form of that life which we know is a creature who can enter into fellowship with God, can share his spirit, know his high ends, and work with him. Not all men reach this level, but that is God's goal. There may be other and like creatures elsewhere in the universe. And there may be, nay must be, higher reaches of life for humanity to achieve, especially in its social expression; but this would seem to be the highest plane: life which can share the mind and spirit of God. If God intended man for this fellowship, if he thus lifts man up to a union of love and purpose with himself, then man cannot be "cast as rubbish to the void." A Father cannot thus let his children perish.

To this argument from faith in God and in man, we may turn to the consideration of faith in a rational universe. In our study of the grounds for belief in God we considered the double rationality of the universe: the rationality of ground or cause, and that of purpose or end. In science we assume the former: an orderly world in which nothing happens without some adequate ground. Without this there could be no science, no certainty in action, no life at all. The other kind of rationality has to do with ends, or values. It is the conviction that the world has meaning as well as order, that there are ends being achieved. Without this there could be no moral or religious life. As a matter of fact, our universe actually has produced, and does produce, beauty and goodness and other high values. If this is all an accident, if there is in all this neither thought nor purpose, then we are in a cosmic madhouse. A universe where the course of events is without purpose is as crazy as one where events occur without cause. But if there be reason and purpose in the world, then human immortality becomes probable. A rational universe must not only create values, it must preserve them; and values live only in personal beings, in beings that can see beauty and know truth and achieve goodness in character and life. What kind of universe would it be, then, which would produce all this only to let it perish? Look at the picture as it would be in such a case: Ages of slow evolution have brought forth here on earth, and perhaps in other spheres, creatures who can know and love and aspire, in whom moral and spiritual values are realized. But these must all perish, one by one, and then the race itself, till only death and darkness remain. We must face, then, the choice: either we hold to immortality or this universe is irrational and

"earth is darkness at the core,

And dust and ashes all that is."

We say, then, with Emerson: "What is excellent, as God lives, is permanent."

One important consideration remains to be stated: It takes more than an intellectual exercise to give a vital belief in immortality. Men become certain of eternal life only by entering in upon it; you must experience it and practice it if you are to believe in it. The first matter is to be sure of God, to know the powers of this world of the spirit which time and change and death cannot affect. It is when spiritual life ebbs that men lose faith in immortality, 'it is when men know the reality and power of this higher world that, with Paul, they become certain that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate" them from the love of God/


Is the belief in immortality selfish? No. Men do not usually become interested in the future life through concern for themselves, but only when death takes those whom they love deeply or greatly admire. Faced with this situation, they cannot believe that such spirits, with all their love and faith and courage, become in a moment nothing more than the dust of the street, that their lives have no more abiding meaning than the swarms of ephemeridae who flutter a few hours above the sands and lie lifeless the next morning. Faith in immortality is the brave protest of the spirit against the idea that lives like this are at the mercy of brute force and blind change. But the individual interest in immortality may itself be the fine expression of a noble spirit which has learned the secret of life in faith and service and finds it good. So we can applaud Dr. Wilfred Grenfell as he writes, not from the comforts of London, but from bleak Labrador: "I am very much in love with life. I want all I can get of it. I want more of it, after the incident called death, if there is any to be had" (quoted by W. Cosby Bell, If a Man Die, p. 51).

How can the spirit survive when the body is destroyed? Is not the mind at every point dependent upon the body? Thus we know that the failure of a single endocrine gland to function properly may mean an otherwise normal child developing into semi-idiocy, and that the most remarkable return to normal mind and body conditions can be secured by supplying the deficiency.

But there are other important facts to be taken into account. The powerful influence of the mind upon the body is equally plain. It may produce sickness, it may promote health. Under special excitement of mind men have done what was impossible in normal conditions. What is more, while the body is necessary for the development of the self, yet the mind seems to grow more independent of the body. As soon as a man reaches maturity the body begins to decline; we literally begin to die at thirty. But the mind may move on with steady growth even beyond threescore and ten, and the flame of the spirit burn clear and bright, as with a Wesley, when the body is frail from age and ready to break down. All this suggests a different conception, that the body is not the cause but the setting and condition for the growth of the spirit, that the spirit may become more and more independent of the body till the latter is discarded as the scaffolding which comes down when the real structure has been reared.

Let us remember too that the Christian hope is not that of the life of a disembodied spirit. The idea of a literal physical resurrection is widely given up. But Paul's idea of a "spiritual body" is another matter. We cannot say what such a body may be like. The body here on earth is the means by which we establish active and fruitful relations with the world about us. To speak of the "resurrection of the body" may be and usually is misleading, but what the term stands for is plain. It means that the next life will be incomparably richer than this, and that we shall not lack the means for contact with our world, for effective action, and for fellowship with others. It is not knowledge, of course, that we have here but simply faith, a confidence based on our convictions as to God.

There is, finally, the objection repeatedly raised in the name of evolution. Matter came first, we are told, mind much later; therefore mind is dependent, incidental, and cannot hope to survive the death of the body. But this is begging the question, not facing it. Of course the rule for the race as for the individual is "first that which is natural, then that which is spiritual," as Paul said long ago. But whether that is the rule for the universe is another matter, and there the real issue lies. Did order and beauty, law and truth, reason and goodness all come from the clash of atoms and the whirl of electrons, or does the universe reveal Creative Spirit slowly working out its ends in a visible world? We have seen reasons for holding the latter, rather than the former with its idea of something out of nothing. But if the latter be true, then this objection falls out. The spirit of man is not a chance and late arrival on the shores of time. It is the final work of that Creative Spirit of which the world of ordered nature as well as of spiritual values bears witness. And if Spirit is basic and ultimate, and not matter, then the human spirit may survive.


So far we have talked about the saints and their hope of heaven; but what about the sinners and the Church's teaching as to the judgment and hell? And what about the many who, if they have not chosen the way of evil, have yet not found the way of good and the life with God: the ignorant and the careless, the abnormal and subnormal, and those who have lived without privilege and light of truth in dark ages or dark lands? Fortunately, it is not ours to decide all this. Nevertheless, we can at least consider some principles to guide us here and cast out some unchristian ideas that have remained too long in Christian thought.

First of all, judgment is both a fact and a faith. We see the facts round about us. What men sow, they reap. Sin is selfishness arrayed against good will, it is disloyalty in the place of obedience to the highest. Selfishness and disloyalty mean anarchy in the social world and destruction of the individual. There is a judgment on sin that inheres in the very process of life. The nations that are following the ways of selfishness and greed, of militarism and oppression, the history of the World War and of the years since 1918, all bear witness to this judgment. It is the same in individual lives. This is not a doctrine of despair, however, but of hope. Such judgment is essential to a moral universe. Righteousness and truth have the forces of the universe on their side. Evil destroys itself. And there is something more: judgment culminates, it means something at the end of history. In this world good and evil are in the making; they are not only inseparable but are often hardly to be distinguished. But each tends more and more to move on to its completion. The completion of good is the heaven of God; the completion of sin is the judgment on sin. And there will be an inevitable final separation as each goes to its own.

To hold this does not mean to accept all that has been said in the past as to hell. Ours is no vindictive, vengeful God; he has no joy in suffering. Punishment is not something inflicted from without; it is the working out of the consequence of sin. Hell is life separated from God and good, defeated, frustrated, self-destroyed; and we see it here and now. Flames no more make hell than walls and streets make heaven. We need to be especially careful not to be dogmatic or omniscient about how this judgment is to take place. Judgment is not as simple as our theologies have made it. We must face the fact that men cannot so easily be divided into saints and sinners. Human life is in the making. How many saints are there, clear in faith, ripe in character, and ready for heaven? How many sinners are there who are irrevocably fixed in evil and given to sin? And what of the immature, the unprivileged, and the rest?

We are not trying to take God's place as judge, but simply to understand. Clearly, some of our ideas must be revised. One mistake is thinking of life as a mere probation, a putting men on trial before they are judged. No, this world is not so much a place for the testing as for the making of men; that is God's great concern. And why should he be limited to this world? The physical fact of death does not at a stroke change these mixed and unformed lives into pure saints or sinners. If the world to come has place for growth and change, that may mean change of direction. We cannot believe that a Christlike God will ever turn away from men who turn to him, or cease in his effort to win men from death to life.

At the same time there are other facts which we must face. (1) Character tends toward increasing fixity. All life is a choosing of what we will be; there is no desire, no word, no deed that does not register itself, and the result is at once our choice and our destiny. (2) There is a law of spiritual gravitation by which the good and the evil both move toward their own kind and their own place. (3) Sin necessarily, by its very nature as well as its desire, means separation from God. And this is essentially what hell means: it is separation from God, the evil which men choose as their life, and the fellowship of those who are evil like themselves.


  • How does faith in eternal life differ from belief in existence after death?
  • What are the chief grounds for belief in immortality stated in order of importance?
  • What are the chief obstacles to such belief in the modern mind?
  • Does belief in the eternal tend to minimize or destroy for men the significance and value of the temporal and historical, or to heighten them?


  • John Baillie: And the Life Everlasting
  • W. Cosby Bell: If a Man Die
  • B. H. Streeter, Editor: Concerning Immortality
  • Harry Emerson Fosdick: The Assurance of Immortality
  • A. S. Pringle-Pattison: The Idea of Immortality
  • J. Y. Simpson: Man and the Attainment of Immortality
  • J. H. Leckie: The World to Come and Final Destiny
  • W. R. Inge and others: What Is Hell?