And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of those that
kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.
But I will forewarn you who in ye shall fear : Fear him,
which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell ; yea, I
say unto you. Fear him. —Luke xii. 4, 5.
THERE is no subject, it would seem, which would interest man so much as that great change in his existence which is called death, and yet there are few questions concerning which so little is known and so many errors prevail. The most common opinions concerning it are that it is a mystery, a terror and an agony ; that it was sent upon man as a punishment for disobedience, and that it is a standing monument of the Divine displeasure. Consequently, men almost universally shrink from it with horror, and to many it is the one dark cloud and terrible dread of life. Poets and orators and Christian teachers hold it up as the most awful calamity, and it is the severest punishment known to human laws. But much of the mystery and terror that invests it is due to entire misconceptions of its origin and nature, and these misconceptions seem to have their origin in confounding the two deaths and attributing to one the qualities that belong to the other. Men have attributed to natural death the pains and sufferings that belong only to spiritual death. Indeed, most men overlook the second death entirely, and, if they think of the subject at all, think only of natural death.
A careful examination of the Sacred Scriptures and enlightened reason will show us that natural death, by which we understand the separation of the soul from the body, was not sent upon man as a punishment for sin, but is an orderly step in the progress of his life. It was not this- death that came into the world by sin. If man had never sinned he would still have cast off his material body and passed on into the spiritual world.
We need go no further than the first intimations of death which we have in the Sacred Scriptures to learn that it was not natural death that came by sin. The warning given to Adam and Eve was, ‘* In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen. ii. 17.) But they did not die a natural death in that day. Either that was not the death referred to, therefore, or the warning was a false one. And this we cannot for a moment suppose. So when Moses said to the Israelites,” See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil” (Deut. xxx. 15), he cannot mean natural life and death, for if they had obeyed every one of his commandments they would not have lived forever in this world. The Lord also commanded Jeremiah to say to the Jews, “Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death.” (Jer. xxi. 8.) In the Psalms also it is said, “Thou hast delivered my soul from death.” (Ps. Ivi. 13 ; cxvi. 8.)
The apostles also often speak of death in this sense. But what our Lord said to Martha is conclusive upon the subject, “Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (John xi. 26.) By this He could not mean natural death, for multitudes which no man can number have lived and believed in Him, and their bodies have returned to the dust from which they were formed. When the apostle says that death came by sin, and that death has passed upon all, for that all have sinned (Rom. v. 12), he evidently means the death of the soul. There is no evidence in the Bible that natural death was caused by sin. It is a mere human inference. It is no doubt true that much of the sickness and pain that generally precedes and attends our departure from this world is more or less remotely caused by sin, because evil desires and false principles lead to the violation of physical laws, to intemperance in eating and drinking, to anxieties and excitements and disorders of life. The average duration of human life in this world has without doubt also been much shortened by evil, for we know that the average duration of life increases as civilization advances and men become more observant of the laws of life. But there is no evidence that man would live forever in this world even if he lived a perfect life. Immortality in this world is certainly not taught in the Bible, and there are many rational considerations and inferences from the Sacred Scriptures that show conclusively that it is not according to the purposes of the Divine wisdom that man should live here forever.
So far as our knowledge extends, the existence of every living thing organized of matter is limited. It has laws of birth, growth, and decay. There is no exception. Every plant in the vegetable kingdom, for example, attains its growth and does not pass beyond a certain limit. It may remain stationary there for years, for centuries, and yet the moment it stands still it begins to decline, and eventually it will fall and perish. The same is true of the animal kingdom. There are no exceptions to the law. Now, it is worthy of notice that animals and vegetables have not sinned ; they live according to the true order of their creation. Man, as to his physical nature, is an animal, and the laws of his generation, development, and life are the same. There have been, and no doubt are still, multitudes of human beings who have lived in perfect health. And yet they grow old and die. Nor do they die of any disease ; when the body has done its work it shrivels and falls from the soul as the husk from the corn.
But again, so far as human observation extends, the development of organized beings and things proceeds by distinct steps, the prior acting as an instrument for the creation of the succeeding, and being left behind it in the ascent. In the vegetable kingdom, when the germ expands, the outer covering which contained it is thrown aside ; the blossom fades and perishes when the fruit is born and begins a distinct existence ; and again, the husk and chaff and rough covering which have served as a body and vessel and protection for the fine, fluent substances of the seed during its formation wither and die when the seed is ripe. The same order and method prevails in the animal kingdom. This is beautifully exemplified in insects. There are three distinct steps in insect life. A caterpillar is hatched from an egg then it becomes a chrysalis enclosed in a hard covering, and apparently almost lifeless, and then a moth or butterfly. During these metamorphoses, or changes of form, it never goes back and resumes its former state. The moth does not become a worm and the worm an egg. But it continually advances until it completes the cycle of its life, preparation being made in each state for the succeeding one.
Have these analogies and this method of the Divine wisdom, which is universal so far as we know, no significance ? So far as our observation extends, we find creation and life proceeding according to the same order and method in man as in all other creatures. Can we suppose that the order is reversed the moment we reach the limits of our own observation ? Man is a spiritual being. He has a spiritual body, for the apostle Paul declares, ” There is a spiritual body. ” Man has a nature of a degree distinctly higher than the animal, than any other created being. And is it not according to all the analogies of the Divine method of creating that man should attain his highest state by successive changes of state? continually throwing off and leaving behind those materials and instruments which have been used as means for its attainment ? If there is any force in reasoning from universal methods, I do not see how we can come to any other conclusion than that natural death is a step forward in life, if man has a distinctly spiritual nature, a spiritual body.
But if the laws of analogy did not point with sure indications to the great truth that natural death is only a step forward in life, we might infer it from the infinite nature of the Divine love and wisdom. Suppose it had been the original intention of the Creator that man should live immortal upon this earth, there must soon have been a limit to the number of human beings He could create ; for while man lives upon the earth clothed in a material body he must be fed with products from the earth, and even in the most perfect order of things the limits of its power to sustain human life must be reached ; and when that hmit is reached the whole order and nature of man must be changed. Society must to a great extent become stationary. No new elements could be constantly added to it ; no new varieties of character be constantly adding to its perfection. Conceive for a moment the earth to be crowded with a population to the full extent of its capacity to support life, and the same beings to dwell upon it forever, with no infancy, no childhood, no old age, nothing to call forth our sympathy, nothing to awaken fresh and lively hopes,—would not such a state be more like the dead level of a stagnant pool than the running stream of an ever-varying life? Would not some of the elements which seem most important and even essential to human happiness be wanting ? But suppose the earth to be filled with happy people. Could the comparatively few human beings the earth could sustain satisfy the infinite love of the Lord?
There is something of the infinite even in the material world. We see it in the variety which everywhere exists ; no two things or beings are alike. We see it in the tendency of every plant and animal to reproduction and multiplication. Can we for a moment suppose that man, who stands at the head of the Creator’s works, should be the only exception to this law? that while plants and animals are produced in endless variety in a circle of successive generations, man, who was created in the image and likeness of God, should soon reach the limit of his numbers, and beyond that limit could know no increase through the coming eternity ? How much grander the idea, and worthier of infinite love, and more in accordance with all we know of the Divine methods, that an endless succession of generations should be born upon the earth and transplanted into the heavens ! Thus human life upon the earth, instead of being the completed work of the Lord, is only its beginning. Earth is the nursery and seminary of heaven, where human souls capable of receiving the Divine life and reciprocating the Divine love, capable of loving and being loved, can be born with endless variety and number.
But again, if man was born to live forever in this world, what becomes of all the promised blessedness of heaven ? Are we not taught in the Sacred Scriptures, both by positive precept and inevitable inference, that heaven is a better and more perfect world than this? What becomes of the happiness which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived? Is heaven, the abode of the angels and the Lord, a mere refuge from this world? and does its principal excellence consist in the contrasts it furnishes to this life ? Would there have been no mansions in heaven for us if there had been no sin upon earth ? Would there have been no songs of joy there by human voices if there had been no wail of sorrow here ? Even upon the supposition that the angels are a race of beings distinct from men, would heaven be as perfect, would the angels be as happy in their bright abodes, without a constant accession of human beings from the earth to instruct and love ? If you insist that man was born to be immortal in this world, but that the happiness of heaven exceeds anything possible to this life, as the prevalent theology does, you admit that man has been a gainer by sin ; he has escaped from a world of material limitations and imperfections and gained entrance to one where all the conditions of his existence are perfect, where he can associate with angelic beings and enjoy a fulness and perfection of happiness impossible to this. If you admit that heaven would not be as perfect without a continual influx of life from this world, you admit that both angels and men are gainers by natural death.
Whatever view we take of the subject, then, I see but one escape from the inevitable conclusion that natural death has in itself no real terrors ; that it is an orderly step in man’s successive creation, and a part of the great original purpose of the Divine love and wisdom, according to which there is to be an endless succession of human souls created upon the earth, who, after passing through various stages here, are to find their final home in the spiritual world. I say I see but one escape from this conclusion, and that is in the admission that the spiritual world is not so real and perfect a world as this. And that admission involves so many and great absurdities, such an entire inversion of all the methods of the Divine order ; is so contrary to the whole tenor of the Word and subversive of the precious promises and immortal hopes it holds out to us, that it seems Impossible that any rational mind could entertain it for a moment. If the spiritual world is not the vain dream of an idle fancy ; if the Lord and the angels and the promises of heavenly blessedness are not fallacious hopes, then that change in our organization, that disrobing of the spirit by its resurrection from the material body, that escape from the imprisonment and bonds of the flesh, which men call death, has no real terror, and, instead of shrinking from it with horror, we ought to welcome it as our deliverer from bondage, as an introduction into life.
And without doubt we should regard death in this light if we had not invested it with terrors which belong to an entirely different subject, and lost air true idea of the nature and reality of the world to which it introduces us. Before man had so far receded from that world by a life of evil as almost to forget its existence, death had no terrors. It was the gate of entrance into a new life. He lay down to sleep with the delightful hope and perfect confidence that he would wake in a new world. Death was going home ; it was the conscious entrance into a higher state of being. It was the happy reunion with loved ones who had gone before. It was a step which brought him nearer to the Fountain of all life and the Author of all human blessedness. How could it be regarded with fear? How could the soul shrink from it with horror ? Suppose the chrysalis, imprisoned in that hard covering we may call its body, buried in the earth and limited to a bare existence, could have a perception of the change that is soon to take place in its state. It is soon to burst the gates of its present life and emerge into a new world of light and beauty. Instead of being buried in the dark earth, it is to soar aloft through the air, to bask in the light and warmth of the summer sun, to sport in joyous flights in happy bands, to feed upon the honeyed dews and the distilled sweets of flowers.
Do you think it would look forward to such a change with dread ? But the change from the chrysalis almost devoid of life, shut up in the dark, to the gay and beautiful insect is not so great as the change that takes place in man in his resurrection from the material body. This change, then, which men call death, this putting off of the material body, is not, cannot be, an interruption of the Divine plan, a thwarting of the Divine purposes of good towards His human children. It must be the fulfilment of those purposes. All Scripture properly understood, all right reason, teaches us that it must be so. To deny it is to plunge into inexplicable absurdities. But there is a death which we ought to fear, and from which we shall do well to shrink with horror, and that is spiritual death, sometimes called the “second death.” This death does not consist in a cessation of existence, nor in the departure from this world to the spiritual world, but in the inversion and destruction of the true order of man’s nature.
Man is said to be alive, in the Word, when he receives life from the Lord according to the original order and constitution of his nature. The Jews were promised life if they would obey the laws of the Lord. The whole Word is full of the same promises. ” If thou wilt enter into life,” said our Saviour, ”keep the commandments.” He came that men might have life. This was spiritual and not natural life. And the reason why life is promised on the condition of keeping the commandments, and often as a reward for keeping them, is because the commandments are the laws of life. The rewards are not arbitrarily given, but follow as a consequence, as the physician may promise health on the condition of our obeying the laws of physical life.
Man was created by infinite wisdom according to a certain order. By observing this order he would attain his life, a life ever increasing in fulness and degree. Any deviation from that order would be attended with some loss of life. It would prevent man from receiving life from the Lord in its fulness and perfection. The moment man violated a law of his spiritual nature he suffered some loss of spiritual capacity. Man began to die. This was the warning the Lord gave Adam and Eve, “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” And the warning was not an idle one. They did die in the day, not the natural day of twenty-four hours, but in the state and according to the degree that they ate of the forbidden fruit, which was evil. And this is a universal law in all orders and degrees of the creation. When the laws of vegetable life are broken, the plant begins to die. When the laws of animal life, of man’s physical life, are violated, the animal and the body begin to die. Death follows as an inevitable consequence. It is not arbitrarily inflicted. As the soul is immortal, spiritual death is not the cessation of existence, but the loss of the soul’s ability to receive life from the Lord in true order. The substances which compose the soul cannot be dissipated as the material elements which compose plants, animals, and the material body can. Man as a spiritual being must continue to exist, but in a state of spiritual death.
There are two principal characteristics of this death worthy of our notice. First, it is a loss of life. Man was created by the Lord with the power of perpetual and indefinite advancement in his capacity to know and love and be happy. The more we learn, the more we are capable of learning. The more we love, the more we are capable of loving. The more we enjoy, the more we are capable of enjoying. So that the feeblest child upon the earth may ultimately pass beyond the present state of the highest angel. But spiritual death arrests this development. It closes up the higher degrees of man’s mind against Divine influences, and shuts out the light and life of heaven. His whole nature becomes stunted and dwarfed. He stops in the grand and endless career of life at the beginning, and loses all the glory and blessedness of the eternal future. And no finite mind can estimate that loss. Men are often inconsolable at the loss of property or office, on account of hinderance in some earthly career, but that is a mere nothing compared with his loss who dies at the beginning of life. How sad it is to see a blind child ! By the death of his eyes how much he has lost ! He must wander in darkness through the earth, comparatively helpless, for ten, twenty, fifty years, unconscious of its beauty of form and color, of the significance of expressive faces and gestures, of the changing glories of the seasons, of day and night, and the ever-shifting play of things by which the web of human life is woven. How great, how irreparable, how sad the loss ! And yet what is that compared with the loss of one’s spiritual sight? Nothing,—absolutely nothing ! One is the loss for a few years of the sight of earthly things, the other the loss to eternity of the inexpressible beauty and glory of heaven. This is but one of the senses.
Suppose you had held in your hand the first grain of wheat that was created. You planted it, and in time it just pushed its head above the ground, and there its progress is arrested. It remains a green blade, but becomes nothing more. What a loss to humanity ! Thousands of millions of acres, waving with golden harvests, the staff of life for thousands of generations, broken. It surpasses the power of the finite mind to conceive the loss to humanity, and yet that is nothing compared with what every soul will lose whose progress is arrested in the first beginning of life by spiritual death. ” What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul ?”
You observe that I say nothing so far about pain and punishment, but speak merely of loss of attainment, of what man does not gain, of the endless and only less than infinite blessings the Lord intended for him which he fails to receive. And if he were to stop there, like the grain of wheat arrested in its growth, and suffer no pain, suffer nothing but the loss, can you conceive anything more terrible ? What a blasting of hopes ! What bankruptcy ! What eternal ruin ! Who would not fear a death which closes the gates of such hopes against us and bars us from the possession of such endless and ineffable joys ? But this is not all. By that inversion of life which we call spiritual death the soul comes into such a state of disorder and discord with the Fountain of life and with all outward things that it is filled with perpetual pain. It is not my purpose to describe the woes and agonies of the second death. We all know something of what they are, for there is not a sorrow or pain that afflicts human hearts that is not the effect of the second death. Count up your own sorrows, the pain from blasted hopes, the pangs of regret, the stings of remorse, the chafings from conflicting interests, the smarts of jealousy and shame, and the great shadow of fear that lies like a cloud upon all hearts ; measure the sum of human suffering in the hearts around you, and they will declare the awful consequences of this death in a language more forcible and eloquent than the painter’s colors or the writer’s words. Add to these, if you can, the future consequences of this death, the night that has no hope of a coming morning, the cup of misery that can never be drained, the feverish and tormenting desires that can never be appeased. Is there not reason in the Divine words, ” And I say unto you, my friends. Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear : Fear him, who after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell. Yea, I say unto you. Fear him” !
Is there not every reason to fear this death ? Human language is totally inadequate to express its horrors. Human imagination cannot adequately conceive its awful terrors. You may fear it ; you ought to fear it; teach your children to fear it ; warn your friends and neighbors to fear it. It is the most terrible thing in the universe. And yet men do not fear it. They play and dance with it ; they crown it with roses, and sink willingly into its embrace. Gentle and timid women, who would scream at a harmless insect and fall into a swoon at the sight of blood, will gayly and boldly toy with death ; will greet it with gay laughter and song, and cherish it with its hideous deformities and the sting of its endless pain in the secret shrine of their hearts. And men who call themselves ruined if they lose money, who are ashamed of goodness and have not sufficient courage to say, I have done wrong, are bold enough to do the wrong.
I know of no illusion of evil so cunning and destructive to human souls as that which conceals the horrors of real death with deceptive and vain delights, and invests a mere step in life with all the horrors of death. How we mourn when a beloved one is translated ! We look at the body which is cast off, and our eyes are blinded with tears. But who weeps over the dead souls that fill our houses and throng our streets ? The stir and bustle and noisy activity that everywhere meet the eye and fall upon the ear are not the sounds of life. The shout and song that come from festive halls are not the sounds of living souls, but too often the wild, mad revelry of death. And the earth, this beautiful and glorious earth, created to be the birthplace of immortal souls and the sweet cradle of infancy, the nursery of heaven, has become a vast sepulchre, a dwelling for the dead, a grave in which human souls are buried.
We die spiritually before we do naturally. The death of the body only lifts the veil and reveals to us in clear light the death of the soul that already exists, and permits us to pass on to its full consequences. When the body has performed its use, it fades like the blossom, it withers and falls like the husk, and reveals the life or death that exists within. It does not cause it ; it does not add to it or subtract from it, any more than the removal of the chaff adds to or subtracts from the wheat. Let us not, then, confound these two things so entirely distinct and different, and live in constant dread of that death which is but an orderly step in life and a provision of infinite mercy, while we forget the real danger of our souls.
Author: Chauncey Giles, From Progress in Spiritual Knowledge, 1895