Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.

Belief and Life

Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel

By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.

Chapter 8


(John xi. 25)

It is characteristic of the Fourth Evangelist that he should link the hope of immortality with the person of Jesus Christ, and the Christian Church has not been slow to follow his example. The life of which Christ is the source and guarantee to Christians is a life more abundant, not shut up within the narrow confines of time and of the flesh, but eternal in outlook and infinite in range. The Gospel makes no attempt to prove the immortality of the soul. The matter is regarded not so much as one for argumentation as for testimony. It belongs to that spiritual valuation of man which is an integral part of the Christian message. Man’s nature is estimated in terms which justify the belief that "he was not made to die,” and on that basis his whole destiny is shaped. For Christians nothing more is needed. Their faith in Christ is sufficient to enable them to accept His word on this great question. He has accomplished their salvation from sin and death, has brought life and immortality to light through His gospel, and they are content to say with Baxter:

“My knowledge of that life is small.

     The eye of faith is dim;

But 'tis enough that Christ knows all,

     And I shall be with Him.”

And even those who cannot use this language, and have no such assurance of faith, may be well advised to follow the method indicated in the Gospels in dealing with the question of the future life. It is not a matter that can easily be settled by argument, and most of the old-fashioned "proofs" leave us cold. Even the modern investigations of psychical research, interesting as they are from the psychological point of view, have little or no religious value. It is not enough to suggest to men the possibility of survival. The bare fact has nothing in it of light or hope. For the Christian view of the future it is necessary to know that the life hereafter will be a better one than the life here, and that there is some moral link between the two. We have the assurance of this in Christ, who is. Judge as well as Saviour; but we can prepare the way for it and support it by certain presumptions derived from our knowledge of the universe and of the nature of man, the cumulative effect of which is impressive.

1. An Instinctive Belief.

In the first place, we have to reckon with the widespread nature of the belief in some form of survival after death. Investigation into the burial customs of primitive races has removed all doubt as to the instinctive character and almost universal sway of such beliefs. They tell us little or nothing as to the nature of the life beyond, but they testify with one voice to the fact of the belief. The most pious duty of the survivors is to prepare their friends for a new condition of existence. And we are justified in saying of this what we say of primitive religion generally, that it is native to man and represents the normal and natural working of the human consciousness. Therefore it is not to be put aside as a mere freak or aberration due to ignorance. It is an essential part of man’s mental and moral equipment, has its work to do in the process of his development, and points to some reality with which it corresponds. If man is a sane creature and lives in a sane world, then, when he thinks he was not made to die, he is not being self-deceived.

Further, if we believe in the reasonableness of the universe, we shall believe not merely in the reasonableness of man’s primitive instincts but of his most fundamental and characteristic demands. We have certain moral and religious needs for the expression and satisfaction of which the universe must provide or else be judged irrational. The belief in goodness, righteousness, and truth is not a delusion, any more than the belief of the mathematician that two and two invariably make four. We are as justified in asking that the universe shall answer our spiritual demands as he is in asking that it shall answer his intellectual demands. There are certain moral and spiritual values the conservation of which is as necessary in a rational universe as the conservation of those intellectual values on which both natural science and daily life depend. But these higher values are invariably the expression of personal activity, and the question then arises, whether their conservation is possible apart from that of the personalities which produce them. Here it does not seem sufficient to reply that men continue to live "in lives made better by their presence,” that memory and influence constitute the only immortality that is possible or worth having, and that the craving for personal post - existence is a selfish and egotistic thing. This means that in the universe, as we know it, there is no room for the satisfaction or development of that in us which is best and highest. If our nature is to fulfil its bent, some wider opportunity than that afforded by this life must be provided for us. That we should welcome such an opportunity only shows that we have learned to place a true value on ourselves and on our destiny. While it is true that men survive in their achievements, they are never likely to be content with such survival. No personality is truly expressed in its actions, and the greater it is the wider is the sphere needed for its development. Only in a future such as eye hath not seen nor ear heard is there the chance of bringing the higher human values to fruition.

Reflections such as these are forced on us by the spectacle of young and promising lives cut off in their prime. If this universe represents a moral order, then there is no room in it for the kind of waste which such premature death seems to involve. The instinct that refuses to believe that the vast potentialities of these young lives will remain for ever unrealised is a true and right one. In a sane world men make things, not in order that they may be destroyed, but to fulfil a purpose and achieve an end. And shall God do less? If we are indeed made in His image and for the ends of His grace, then it is at least reasonable that we should have the opportunity of fulfilling our high destiny, if not here then hereafter.

2. A Moral Universe.

At the same time, we have to reckon with the fact that the Judge of all the earth will do right. If this is a moral universe, then it will provide for the conservation of moral values. Justice will always be done in the long-run, and truth and righteousness will triumph. But it is obvious that in this present world this does not happen. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to religion is the moral spectacle which the universe presents to those who confine their observation to this life only. They are confronted by a vista of broken hopes, frustrated ambitions, and unfulfilled ideals. They see virtue suffering and wickedness prospering, and unless they can believe that the balance is redressed in some other sphere, they can come to no conclusion save that they are living in a universe which is as irrational as it is immoral. Even on the grand scale of history, where vision takes a wider sweep and range, the same general conclusion is inevitable apart from belief in a future which will at least make it possible to see justice done. In the long last men cannot be persuaded to deny their own moral nature, and they will not be content with a theory of the universe which does not satisfy their sense of right. They believe in judgment, in retribution, and in the great principle that "as a man sows, so shall he also reap.” They therefore require that room shall be found in the scheme of things for the working out of this principle. They recognise that such room is not to be found in this present life, and so they accept the fact that God hath set eternity in our hearts, and that we are built on a scale which requires a more abundant life to complete it. In corroboration of their faith, it may be said, as John Stuart Mill used to argue, that wherever belief in the future has been strong and vivid, it has made for human progress. There is no doubt that the deterioration of religion and the more material views of life so prevalent just now are due to the loss of faith in the future. It is true that we can easily dispense with certain popular ideas of heaven, and of future reward and punishment. But the alternative to them is not the abandonment of the whole subject, but moralised and less materialistic conceptions. The Churches have undoubtedly suffered from their neglect of this question, and are now in a position to appreciate the truth of the Apostle’s words, that "if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” Religion at any rate can never live or be effective within the narrow circle of time and sense. If it is to do its work, it must have room and scope for development, and this it can only find sub specie eternitatis. Man’s search after God must remain a mockery unless there is a real hope that it can be fully and finally rewarded. But this is not possible here and now, when we see through a glass darkly. It only becomes possible then, when we see face to face.

All this, however, depends on the assumption that the universe is a realm of ends, that it is working out a best that is yet to be, and that it is reasonable. Such an assumption seems to be required by the very constitution of our human nature. Apart from it we have no assurance that things are what they seem, and without it neither science nor history were possible. If we are justified in making it, we have every right to trust our instincts and to believe that our best hopes and ideals are not mere will-o’-the-wisps, but have some reality to correspond to them. The future life, like the belief in God, is best treated as an hypothesis that is yet in process of verification. Experience is gradually making plain to us that only on the assumption of a future life does the life we now live become reasonable and tolerable, and offer any real satisfaction to our ideals. Man can never wholly forget that he is a spiritual being, and only on the understanding that he can find a spiritual environment can he reconcile himself to his lot. This again requires a wider range of opportunity than he can find in the world of time and sense alone.

3. A Final Ratification.

Such considerations as these prepare the way for the full Christian message as to the life to come. To the Christian it is offered as a matter of faith rather than of the understanding, but it is none the less attractive because it appeals to and answers some of the deepest instincts of our nature. But in Christ the future is revealed with a fulness and glory that would be quite impossible to the unaided intuition. He is Himself the source and centre of that more abundant life to which He points His followers. It is a life hid with Him in God. It involves a communion with God far more complete and satisfying than is possible even to the most spiritual natures in this world. True, it depends on the degree of spiritual attainment which is reached here and now, and therefore there are in it grades and stages and possibilities of progress such as we can only dimly envisage. For many, no doubt, it will mean an experience of probation, and for all one of retribution. That men will reap the just reward of their deeds goes without saying, and that they will come to know the love of God which passeth knowledge is equally true. In the light of this faith we may be willing to leave unsolved many vexed questions on which we would gladly obtain more light. In Christ enough has been revealed for faith and hope, and the better part for us is not to indulge in vain and curious speculations, but so to live as that "the gates of the grave shall not prevail against us.” On the basis of the philosophy, " Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” no sane, useful, or happy life is possible. Christ has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, and so has made possible to men a hope that nothing can put to shame, and a patience that will endure to the end. As men learn to live "not unto themselves but unto Him who died for them and rose again,” so do they enter into that endless life of which God Himself is at once the source and the exceeding great reward.

Of this new life Jesus Christ is to the Christian both the ground and the guarantee. It is in such sense that we must interpret the words, "I am the resurrection and the life,” and it is for this reason that the fourteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is a holy place for all those who seek assurance of things eternal and unseen. Here they find their deepest instincts satisfied and their brightest hopes confirmed. Jesus was one who "could not be holden of death.” His life in and with the Father was not bound within the limits of time, and the life which He imparts to others is like unto His own. Just as men are accustomed to verify His teaching and claims by accepting them and submitting to them until they become a kind of second nature, so they may discover Him to be to them the power of an endless life by the extent to which their lives are hid with Him in God. The deeper our faith in Him, and the closer our communion with Him, the clearer will be our vision of the many mansions He has gone to prepare for His own. The moral range of the work of Christ in the human soul, His gifts of grace, forgiveness, and power, lift men at once on to the plane of the spiritual and fill their conception of life with a new and richer content. It is not that they are led merely to contemplate an endless vista of existence, but that the whole of life becomes so rich and full and satisfying that it necessarily reaches beyond the bounds of time and sense. Given this sure grasp of the things of the soul, and the unseen world takes on a new reality. Needs and aspirations too are aroused which cannot be satisfied save in a larger sphere than that of here and now. In this sense Christ brings life and immortality to light through His gospel, and those who live in and unto Him come to realise that the far future is their world always. "He came that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly.”