—F. W. Robertson
The question of immortality is one about which there has been a vast deal of speculation and discussion, pro and con. It was a question which agitated the minds of the people during the life of Jesus, and we find in the controversy that the Sadducees were arrayed on one side and the Pharisees on the other. Both Scribes and Pharisees had some faith in immortality. Among the early Christians there were dissensions, and the Apostle Paul based his theory of immortality on the law that if one rose from the dead then all must rise.
We might go ages back of the time of Jesus and find belief and disbelief in immortality. With the Egyptians and others of the Semitic race, immortality was largely conditional on the preservation of the body, but at a very early date the great Aryan race, as represented by the Hindu people, had thoroughly imbibed the thought of immortality. Besides their sacred writings, the next best proof is the burning of their dead bodies, which would tend to show that their belief in immortality has been and is stronger now than among Christians; because Christians still continue to bury their dead, and, like the early Egyptians, make immortality to a large degree conditional upon the body. The church burial service still holds to the thought of the soul's returning to God who gave it and the body to the earth; and when, at some time in the distant future, the archangel Gabriel blows his trumpet, then shall soul and body be reunited.
This phase of Christian theology is, if anything, more distinctively Egyptian than it is Christian. It is not at all in accord with Christ's idea, for He declared: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." We find that Jesus, when questioned on one occasion, said, "Before Abraham was I am," and when those opposing Him retorted by saying that Abraham had been dead these many years, He answered that God is not a God of the dead, but a God of the living.
Jesus said to know. God is eternal life; not through knowing Him as separate or apart from our lives, but through feeling His presence ever with us, realizing that we are one with all life and intelligence. To Jesus there was no separation: "I in thee, and thou in me, that we may be made perfect in the One." His thought was an animating, intelligent force ever present in His own life, that had power to lay down or take up the physical form at will, showing absolute control of the body.
There is proof that a great majority of the early Christians believed in an immortality which was in no way conditioned by the body. They looked at the physical form as being fitted for the needs and requirements of this earth, but they had been taught that in the Father's house were many mansions, and that in the laying aside of the fleshly garments they would become clothed with spiritual garments; that, though the tabernacle of this house were dissolved, they had a building not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
The New Testament thought of immortality is based on the oneness of life and intelligence. It lays little if any stress on a physical resurrection. The Church has forgotten about the spiritual resurrection of Jesus, but it has celebrated for many hundreds of years the physical resurrection. It was not the same body that went into the tomb that came out of it, but a body that He was free to make visible or invisible at will. Some may contend that the marks of the nails in the hands and feet and of the spear in the side were in themselves sufficient to prove that it was the same body. To offset that, again, the body was not recognized by Mary at the tomb, was not recognized by the disciples who journeyed with Him a half day's journey. We have many instances of stigmata, where, through dwelling on the thought of the crucifixion, people have had the prints of the nails in their own hands and feet.
Remembering that Jesus said, "It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing," we must see in the resurrection a deeper meaning than that which is purely physical, and that the resurrection is above all things a spiritual resurrection. That is what Jesus meant when He said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me." Through the evolution of the same eternal, unchanging love that brought to pass the spiritual resurrection of Jesus, shall all men attain to the life everlasting. There is no separation between the human and the divine. The resurrection of Jesus was a spiritual resurrection, the passing from the consciousness of the partial to the consciousness of the whole, the divine; the laying aside of everything that could hamper or hold the soul in bondage.
The misconceptions which followed the original Christian ideas came from putting a too literal construction on the allegorical Book of Revelation and the loss of the spirit or religion which had animated Christian bodies up to the time of Constantine the Great. A study of church history will show that from this time the spirit was lost sight of and the Church lived in the dead letter of Christian thought. In the dark ages superstition and materialism combined to utterly destroy all that was vital and true, so that scarcely a vestige of the Christ religion was to be found in the Church. While the Reformation tended to bring back something of the old spirit of religion, nevertheless, no real light came from it on the subject of immortality, or the life to come.
Eventually, it may be found that the thing which at one time seemed likely to destroy man's belief in immortality, namely, scientific research and investigation, will become the great factor in causing the minds of people to return to a belief in it, or something more than a belief; because the scientific mind of the present time is waking to the fact that the material world is not all; that there are forces, powers, at work in the universe which transcend all material things.
The question of the present is not, What is matter? but, What is Spirit? When we have answered the last question we shall have the key to the first, because we cannot know in reality what an effect is without knowing something of the cause; and when we know the cause of any given effect, we shall be better able to understand the effect. Scientific thought and investigation have done much in the arrangement and classification of form, but they have gone nearly as far in that direction as it is possible to go, and are taking up, and will take up to a still greater degree, the things that are super sensuous.
Conservation of force and the indestructibility of matter tend to show that in the great economy of nature nothing is ever lost. We see people walking about on this earth endowed with animating life and physical form, and we assert that not one atom of these forms can cease to be, nor one particle of energy be lost. We are conscious of an intelligence controlling and directing the physical organism in every part, and everything leads us to believe that it is in all ways superior to the outer form. Scientifically, we are coming to know that this intelligence created or brought into existence and gave being to the very form which it now inhabits and controls.
The law of evolution goes to prove that for ages life has been tending from lower to higher stages—differentiation after differentiation taking place until in the fullness of time man appeared on the earth. At any stage in evolution we shall find intelligence displayed in the construction of form, this intelligence ever tending to adapt the form to the requirements of its environments.
Is it logical, is it scientific, to say that with the passing of the form this intelligence ceases to be, or becomes dissipated? Of course some may retort that as the physical form becomes dissipated, why not the intelligence? But for that matter, there is dissipation and renewal of the physical form taking place all through the life of man, and yet greater intelligence is constantly evolving, and what takes place at the so-called death is only dissipation in a greater degree. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the minds of people are often clear and active when the life of the body is nearly gone.
The people who would have us believe that this little span of life is the beginning and end of all, and that the physical brain is the mind of man, often bring up such illustrations as an injury to the brain, a fracture of the skull, or something of the kind, interfering with mental action; and these they think tend to prove conclusively that with the entire destruction of the brain comes the entire destruction of mind. Again, they have cited the circumstances where the skull has been trepanned and there has been a return of thought and reason. This, instead of tending to prove their case, in reality proves the reverse. It shows that the mind requires a perfect instrument through which to work, and when that instrument has been damaged it can no longer function in a proper way; but with a return to normal conditions it again resumes its natural activities. It would not be possible to enumerate the cases of people who, while in a state of trance, where physical animation was almost entirely suspended (so much so that attendants could not tell whether life was entirely extinct or not), when the life-principle returned to the body, have recounted many and varied experiences through which they passed during the interval while in trance.
Surely, this could not have been the result of any physical brain-action. If we had no greater proof of life after the passing away of the physical form than this, such testimony should go a long way toward establishing it. Again, there are the many cases of people who have recovered from severe sickness and who, while apparently suffering, have not been conscious of that suffering, but have had a marked consciousness of things other than this world. Of course the advocate of materialism will declare that such things were the hallucinations of a weakened or diseased brain.
The great trouble with the skeptics and agnostics, who array themselves in opposition to the thought of continued life, is that they are not honest in being unwilling to examine into the facts of the case, or else, if doing so, arrogate to themselves an arbitrary way of reaching their conclusions. They can bring no proof which will in any way tend to substantiate their own views, but only dogmatic assertions that the people who believe in immortality are either knaves or fools, and that they have no reasonable grounds whatever for their belief. It is folly to quote Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Paul, Swedenborg, or any other great mind that has ever lived on the planet. If an angel from heaven should appear, he would not be able to change their conceited arrogancy; what other people have known, believed, and taught they declare to have been all false; in fact, they believe that they know everything. Wherever a great scientific mind, like Alfred Russell Wallace or Camille Flammarion, takes up the study of the more spiritual side of life and considers it in an unprejudiced way, it becomes only a question of time when his investigations lead him to believe in and accept the thought of immortality.
The orthodox Christian ideas of immortality are both vague and unsatisfactory. Their particular regulations for the continued existence of those who accept what they are pleased to term the Christian faith and those who reject it, are neither in accord with the teachings of Jesus nor His immediate followers. In their blindness they misconstrue parable and allegory, thus getting meanings that were never intended, and sending the Pharisees to a heaven of everlasting bliss, while the publicans are doomed to eternal punishment.
This thought of immortality is neither Christlike nor true. The Christ thought is that the lost sheep will be brought back to the fold, that the prodigal son's sufferings will so help to bring true desire into his mind that he will return to his father's home, that the eleventh-hour laborer in the vineyard will receive the same compensation as any other, and that God's love and mercy endureth forever; but that man must prepare his mind for the perfect reception of the spirit of God. And that when he becomes conscious of that spirit it brings with it a realization of his sonship to God; that every stage in life has been a necessary one; that the way to God is from man's very lowest earthy nature to his very highest heavenly nature; that every step in this way is one step toward God, and that the love for the righteous and unrighteous is one love, and will save even to the uttermost; that God's mercy endureth forever.
In the Christ Gospel, life and immortality are clearly revealed. A time will come when we shall wonder how we could have misunderstood it and made of it something just the reverse, a doctrine of death instead of eternal life.
The church doctrine of immortality is only a useless encumbrance without life or meaning. There is also an exceedingly vicious side to it in that it condemns to eternal punishment the vast majority of people who pass out of the world, and holds out a reward for a blind belief in doctrines which are in no way essential to the life.
Life and immortality are not for the few, but for all; and this little earth-life is not the beginning nor end of man's destiny. Through the countless ages of the past man has been working up to what he is, and in the ages to come he will grow into an ever-increasing life. The thought of immortality is inherent in each fiber of man's being, and, try as he may, he cannot get away from it. To the wrong-doer, who knows that every wrong act brings with it its own reward, and that the seed of vicious thought will bring a harvest of pain and suffering, the outlook may not be fraught with delightful anticipations; but that suffering will, in the end, prove beneficial in bringing him at last to a knowledge of his real duties to God and man.
Jesus, the Christ, passed through the same trials and temptations that we do, and it was only through meeting those trials and temptations and overcoming them that He was able to rise above the law of sin and death, that law which people had believed in hundreds, yes, thousands, of years. He passed from under its dominion and came under the dominion of the law of the spirit of life, which frees from sin and death.
A New Testament writer says that it is the action of this latter law that all must come under; that we are all sons of God and joint heirs with Christ; that Jesus was the first fruits of them that slept; that we all sleep in the earthy man, and that all must awake in the heavenly man; that Jesus through his life and teaching brought life and immortality to light. Life and immortality had been before the very foundation of things, and had ever been throughout eternity; that in the Adam or earthy man we all die to a knowledge of our true relation to God, so, when we awaken in the Christ spirit, that is in our own lives, then we come into the fullness of life and understanding; that the old things pass away; that we no longer place our trust in any form or in anything external to ourselves; that life and intelligence are eternal, and that there is no separation either in this world or in any other to come.
And this same writer tells us that life is one. The form changes and passes away, but the soul is one with God. Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of life. If there were a period in the evolution of man when he had no conscious knowledge of God—a period that could be spoken of as death when man believed in the law of death—then through man's overcoming this law, through his becoming conscious of another law in his own life, the law of the spirit of life, he becomes the first fruits of them that slept.
This does not take away anything from Jesus; it is not a failure to see the divine in Him, for as we see the human disappear, the divine comes into view. In the early part of the mission of Jesus He referred to Himself over and over again as the son of man, but toward the close of that mission He calls Himself the Son of God, and when He was accused of blaspheming by the people, He answered them in this way: "Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the Scripture cannot be broken."
You see it is essential that the word of God should come into the life before there can be a realization of the oneness with God. With Jesus it is God's will, God's intelligence, God's power acting in and through Him. He knows that he is one with God and that he has eternal life and eternal power, and that he has come under the real law of the Spirit of life. There is perfect order in the life of man as there is in the life of a plant. Some plants come to maturity in a short time and others take a long time. There is law and order in all things. There is a natural development going on in the evolution of the inner hidden possibilities of man. A time comes in his life when he shall have brought everything into subjection, when he shall have dominion and power over all things, and the last enemy to be overcome is death.
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in the twinkling of an eye. The time will come when we will have attained all the knowledge of this earth, when we will have power to lay down these human forms without sickness, without disease, without any great effort. We will have power to lay down or take up, for man must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet.
These words do not refer to any particular man, but to the great universal life of man; not to any one soul, but to all souls of which Jesus was the first fruit. Remember, that in the real temple of God we are all parts, but each part has, in a way, to demonstrate that which the whole must eventually become, and when all individuals have done this, then will man, the universal man, have attained to dominion and power, and will be subject to God and God alone, that God may be all in all.
I heard a minister say, some time ago, when a body was being buried, that the soul had gone to God and that the body would rest in the tomb until the resurrection day, when soul and body would be reunited. When the body passes away, it goes into countless forms of one kind or another. If we were going to live on this planet again, there might be some possible reason for taking up the old body, but just think of some of the bodies that would have to be taken up!
There is no thought of the resurrection of the physical body in the real Christian doctrine of life. Jesus and His disciples never taught it. This body is of this earth and it will never go further than this earth. We shall always have bodies corresponding to our environment. The great truth is that the spiritual resurrection and immortality is hidden in God, is in the thought of life as one, and that life is everlasting; that the life and power are the ever-present indwelling God, and through knowledge of His presence it is given us to shape the individual life in such a way as to at last overcome, to rise above, the law of sin and death. We must lay all stress on the spiritual resurrection, the resurrection to the knowledge of the life eternal, and that the law that brings one soul into its spiritual freedom will bring all souls; that as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.