We do not know exactly when the ancients first grasped the idea of duration without beginning or end, but we find that men in the earlier stages of civilization used the serpent holding its tail in its mouth as a symbol of endless time, and more modern philosophers have adopted the still more beautiful figure of an ascending spiral as the divine symbol of progressive, never-ending development of life and being, a spiral beginning in a microscopic germ of protoplasm, and rising and expanding by slow but sure gradations to the best and holiest we have learned to love and reverence today, but still to be progressive, still to expand, still to go on beyond the limits of our present faith or hope. At one period of human history it was a common thing for theologians and ecclesiastics to use the word "Eternity" as a kind of whip to urge their hearers and devotees to accept their ideal of the religious life, and as the phrase went in those days "to flee from the wrath to come," and we must admit that even this use of the thought had an influence upon a certain type of mind, and produced effects which survive to this day in better morals and cleaner lives. But such an appeal to souls afraid of the Great Unknown, does not lead to the best kind of human virtue, it rather tends to an unreasoning terror, and whatever may have been its effect in past ages, it is, with gradually increasing knowledge, very justly falling into disfavor, in proportion as we learn that we make our own heaven, or sink into our own hell, in the midst of our common life among out fellows, and that goodness leads to greater goodness, and the path of evil must always lead to greater evil if in the early stages of temptation the soul does not rise up in strong resistance, and so overcome. For the value of the great idea of Eternity lies, not in raising our fears but in calming us by the high thought that every moment in every life, and every moment in every world is but part of the great stupendous whole wherein the Power and Wisdom and Love Eternal live and act. As Sir Oliver Lodge says in a recent article—"The universe is struggling upward to a perfection not yet attained. I see in the mighty process of evolution an eternal struggle towards more and more self-perfection, and fuller and more all- embracing existence.”
The fact that we are now in Eternity, that we bear in our souls the impress of all past ages, and belong in a very real sense to all the ages to come, should make us more and more alive to the work of soul-development and purification. Our seventy years or more of physical life offer many possibilities of being good and doing good, and such a life as that of Jesus of Nazareth, with its thirty years or so of earthly existence, presents a glorious example of what may be accomplished by souls alive to the beauty and joy of a life of self-forgetful love. Who can read the story of the conversation with the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well, without feeling the uplifting power of the Teacher who saw so clearly the spiritual unity of all humanity, and made one of the lowliest women conscious of having a part in the Eternal.
Truly the thought that we form part of the wisely planned eternal scheme of things, instead of filling us with terror and causing us to shrink in fear and dread from the mystery of the unknown future, should rather fill us with an unquenchable hope that everything that men at their best have dreamed or prophesied is destined to be fulfilled, and that the years will unroll the scroll of goodness and truth and love beyond our utmost imaginings.
Doubt not the future shall unfold,
To something finer than we dream.
One of the wisest of our modern writers has recently said, "I will never say of the poet’s or prophet’s most radiant vision, ‘Ah! It is too good to be true,’ but will rather say to myself in strong confidence, ‘It is too good not to be true.’" Therefore when, hundreds of years ago, a poet and prophet wrote, "Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive the things which God hath prepared for them that love him," he did but utter the thought which must come to every soul when once the full reality of belonging to eternity is become sure. Then our pessimistic fears depart and we see even amidst the darkest clouds and deepest sorrows of earth, a light destined to shine brighter and brighter for each individual soul, as well as for the race of man.
We inherit the wisdom of the wise in all past ages. We look forward to the unknown future, and expect, as Jesus did, still greater things to be done, and more wisdom to become a common possession. We practically “inhabit eternity," and it has been well said by a German philosopher—"The eternal is the present; in every valuable moment, in every ray of sunshine, in the striving which takes ‘Excelsior’ as its motto." To live eternal life in the midst of time; this is the true immortality whether or not there is any other immortality.