THE DEAN OF WELLS ON THE FUTURE LIFE.* THIS is a very interesting book, which, with a little condensation, might have been even better than it is. The Dean of Wells has read widely on the subject of the many hints supplied by Revealed Religion,—they are little more than hints after all,—concerning the conditions under which the spirit exists in the life beyond the grave. He tells us what the various doctrines of the Jewish synagogues were, immediately before and immediately after the
time of Christ. He examines carefully all that the Gospels and the Epistles say and imply on the subject. He gives us the doctrine of the different Fathers, and shows us how soon the Church formulated her creed as to the publication of the Gospel to those who had passed away from earth. He traces the difference between the teaching of the Roman Catholics on the subject and the teaching of the different Reformed Churches. And he follows the gradual development of the theology of later times on the state of the dead, showing how striking has been the alteration of tone in relation to that state, not only among the freer Churches, but even amongst Roman Catholic divines themselves. In a word, we have found Dr. Plumptre's book one of very deep interest,—very clear, very candid, very learned, so far at least as the present writer can pretend to be any judge of learning on such subjects as these,—and needing only a little more boiling-down to be a model manual on the subject.
No one, however, will read the book, deeply interesting as it is, and wisely balanced as its judgments seem to us, without being struck by the extraordinarily indirect character of the bearing of Revelation on the future state. During a large part of the Jewish dispensation, Revelation, as we all know,. studiously ignored the future state ; and instead of dwelling on it, as the religion of Egypt did, concentrated all its force on the revelation of God, leaving, as it seemed, the condition of man after death in deliberate shadow. Dr. Plumptre puts the case truly enough :—
" May we not legitimately think of the divine education through which Moses was led as involving a reaction against the system in which he had grown up ? He had seen how powerless that system was to raise men out of evil ; how little the vague terrors of the future, even where men believed them, availed to restrain them ; how they had become instruments of oppression in the hands of a priesthood who did not believe them. What was wanted was the belief in an ever-present God, governing and guiding now, rewarding the righteous, pardoning the penitent, and punishing the guilty. This government was to be seen partly in the general laws by which good and evil work out their own natural consequences of blessedness or misery, partly in the special enactments of the Mosaic code; partly, also, in the fact that in the theocracy which that code implied, the connection between the cause and the consequence was more visibly patent than in the history of other nations. It was, to use an image which I owe to Augustus Hare (Village Sermons, ii., p. 37), as if in this instance we were allowed to see the works of the clock of the world's history, while elsewhere we saw only the movement of the hands and heard the striking of the hours. But this apparent suppression of a doctrine was, in fact, but the necessary preparation for its reappearance in a clearer light, and as resting on a firmer-basis. Men were to begin with belief not in the immortality of the soul, but in the eternity of God, who had revealed Himself by the new name of the I AM THAT i AM. They were to be made to feel, as in the Psalm that at least represents the thoughts of Moses, the man of God, that a thousand years were with Him as a watch in the night; that He is God from everlasting and world without end (Psalm xc. 1.4). But the thought of that eternity ennobled rather than depressed man's life. In some way or other he felt that he was called upon to share it. It stirred him to apply his heart' unto a wisdom which was not of earth, to believe in a love which endured to a thousand.generations, to pray that the glorious Majesty of the Eternal might be with him and with his children (Psalm rc,;. 12.17). And unless we are to say that our Lord was reading into the teaching of the older Scriptures what was not really to be found there, there was in that other revelation, ' I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob,' the proclamation, or at least the suggestion, of a yet higher troth (Matthew xxii. 32; Exodus iii. 6-16.) He is not the ' God of the dead, but of the living,' and would not have described Himself by a name which seemed to speak only of the past, unless that past had been perpetuated in the present, and was to be continued in the future. To Him all that ever lived are living still. He is their God for ever and ever."
But this method of reserve was not to be thrown completely aside, even when Christ brought immortality to light. Even then, —though the teaching was to be explicit enough as to the blessedness which would await those who could really learn to live in Christ as the branches live in the vine,—it was to be anything but explicit as to what would await those who had not learned to live in Christ, whether because they could not from want of opportunity, or would not from want of will.
And even as to devout Christians, though the teaching was in some respects explicit, in other respects it was very inexplicit. Whether their future state was to he a sudden and complete transformation into blessedness, or a gradual and progressive transformation, was not explicitly taught, but left to the
light afforded by suggestion and inference. And accordingly on all these subjects, it was by piecing together suggestions and drawing inferences in the spirit of what had been explicitly taught, that the teachers of the Church proceeded, some of them, like Augustine and Gregory of Nyasa, making very rash inferences on very imperfect data, and drawing quite opposite conclusions, while others more prudently contented themselves with general principles, and with interpreting the hints thrown out by Apostles so different in their general style of thought as St. Peter and St. Paul, on the work effected by Christ in the world beyond the grave. What these hints,—we can hardly call them more than hints,—were, Dr. Plumptre has explained very clearly in commenting on the passages in which first St. Peter and then St. Paul affirm a descent of Christ into the world of spirits :—
" And (1) let us look more closely at the words which helped at once to fix the truth in men's minds, and to determine the thoughts which they connected with it. The Apostle has been led through what seemed at first a train of simply ethical counsels, to the example of the meekness and patience of Christ. But he cannot rest—no Apostle could—in the thought of his Lord's passion as being only an example, and so he passes on to speak of its redeeming power. It was a sacrifice for sins; in some mysterious, transcendent way, vicarious. Its purpose was nothing leas than to bring us—Jew and Gentile alike, as both embraced by the atoning love—to bring mankind to God. But then the thought rose up before him that the work looked backwards as well as forwards ; that those who had fallen asleep in past ages, even under conditions that seemed most hopeless, were not shut out from hope. Starting either from a widespread belief among the Jews as to the extent of the Messiah's work ; or from the direct teaching of his Master after that Resurrection; or from one of those flashes of truth which were revealed to him not by flesh and blood, but by his Father in heaven, he speaks of that wider work. The Lord was put to death in the flesh,' but was quickened in the spirit.' That cry, Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,' was the beginning of a new activity. He passed into the world of the dead to be the herald of His own victory. As our Lord, in speaking of God's judgments in the past, had taken the days of Noah and the destruction of Tyre and Sidon, and the cities of the plain, as representative instances of what was true of countless others, so does St. Peter. The spirits of whom he thought as hearing that message were those who had been unbelieving, disobedient, corrupt, ungodly ; but who yet had not hardened themselves in the one irremediable antagonism to good which has never forgiveness. The words, taken by themselves, might leave us in some doubt as to the nature and effect of that proclamation. But it is surely altogether monstrous to think, as some have thought, that He who a short time before had breathed the prayer, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do;' who had welcomed, with a marvellous tenderness, the cravings of the repentant robber ; who had felt, though but for a moment, the agony of abandonment, as other children of God have felt it without ceasing to be children, should pars into the world of the unseen only to tell the souls of the lost of a kingdom from which they were excluded, a blessedness in which they had neither part nor lot,—to mock with the proclamation of a victory, those who were only to be crushed under the chariot-wheels of the conqueror. We have not so learnt Christ as to think of that as possible. But whatever doubt might linger round the words is removed by the reiterated assertion of the same troth a few verses farther on. That which was preached also to them that are dead' was nothing else but a gospel —the good news of the redeeming love of Christ. And it was published to them, not to exempt them from all penalty, but that they, having been judged, in all that belonged to the relations of their human life, with a true and righteous judgment, should yet, in all that affected their relation to God, live in the spirit.' Death came upon them, and they accepted their punishment as awarded by the loving and righteous Judge, and so ceased from the sin to which they bad before been slaves, and thus it became to them the gate of life. So, the Apostle says to his disciples, it should be with them, in times of calamity and persecution. They were to arm themselves with that thought, and so to cease from sin, ne those who were sharers in the sufferings and death of Christ, crucified, buried, risen again with Him, accepting pain, privation, ignominy, as working out a like purification even in this present life. (2) The teaching of St. Peter helps us to understand what else would seem a strange interruption to continuity of thought in the passage in which St. Paul speaks most clearly of Christ's descent to Hades. He is dwelling mainly on the gifts that bad been bestowed upon the Church by her risen and ascended Lord. Bat that word ascended' leads him to pause abruptly. Men were not to think that the work of Christ in the unseen world was limited to that which followed His ascension. ' Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth ? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.' Hades and the Heaven of heavens, had alike felt the glory and the blessing of His presence. At His name had bowed every knee, not of men only on the earth, or angels in heaven, but those who were, as men thought, beneath the earth, the spirits of the dead. The words, then, of the Apostles lead us to the belief of a capacity for repentance, faith, love—for growth, discipline, education, in those who have passed away. We have no sufficient grounds for limiting the work on which they dwell to the representative instance or the time-boundaries of which they speak."
In spite of the great mass of the learning which has arisen on this subject, it may fairly be said that in these passages, and in the few parables and lessons in which Christ himself touches on the state of those who have passed away from earth, are to be found all that can be asserted as in any sense recording the teaching of Revelation on the subject of the world beyond the grave. As Dr. Plumptre points oat, our Lord does certainly teach by implication that there are sins which will be forgiven in the future state which have not been forgiven in this. More over, he directly asserts that there is one sort of sin which will neither be forgiven in the future state nor in this, the reason apparently being that it is a kind of sin which precludes the possibility of penitence. But even on this subject there is more of suggested and mysterious warning than of direct and explicit teaching. How the various Churches and schools have developed these hints into dogmas far more distinct and positive than the hints on which alone they could be legitimately founded, Dr. Plumptre, in the course of his very interesting work, shows us with much ability, adding some wise criticisms on the hastiness and over-confidence of the inferences so frequently drawn.
But what is the net result of the book ? It is undoubtedly this,—that there are a certain class of passages in Christ's teaching which unquestionably suggest a future state of suffering destitute, if not of all ultimate hope, yet of all immediate hope, as the consequence of earthly sin ; that there are other passages in his teaching which explicitly enforce the doctrine that every one who had not full light will be dealt-with mercifully, and that only those who sinned against light will be dealtwith severely ; further, that there are passages in St. John's Gospel (" I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me"), and several in St. Paul's Epistles, anticipating the time when God shall be all in all, suggesting the prospect of a complete ultimate triumph of God over evil. Thus we are left with what seems something like a contradiction in the language of different Christian teachers, some of them dwelling on the awfulness of a final moral catastrophe, with no light beyond, and others of them dwelling on the more distant prospect of a light to spring-up, even in that darkness. Dr. Plumptre does not ask, as we cannot help asking, how far this admitted appearance of contradiction, in the drift of Revelation, is consistent with Revelation at all ? Is it intelligible that a true Gospel should speak through one of its chosen teachers a threat in which there is no undertone of hope ; and should speak through another of its chosen teachers a promise in which there is no undertone of dread ? We can only say in
reply, that not only in the utterances of different mouths is there this tendency to teach what appear like inconsistent truths, but also in the utterances of the same mouth.
Christ deliberately tells his disciples that with men that is impossible which is not impossible with God, for with
God all things are possible. He deliberately tells them to say, after they had done all that is commanded, " we are unprofitable servants," and yet commands them to be "perfect, even as their Father in Heaven is perfect." He deliberately tells them that his gospel is the gospel of peace, and yet that it will bring not peace on earth, but a sword. He deliberately tells them that be who is not with them is against them, and again that he who is not against them is with them. His method, as far as we understand it, is to fix the minds of his disciples on the full significance of the moral principle which he is putting before them, whether it be full of promise or of terror, and not to distract their attention from it to any other. If he is speaking of the downward path, he shows how infinitely more difficult every step down renders every attempt to turn back. If he is speaking of the love of God, he shows how infinite in resources, beyond what we can understand, is the redeeming love which goes in search of the lost, and seeks to reclaim them. For our own parts, we should say that the only teaching that can be effective is this kind of teaching, though it seems to result not unfrequently in logical contradictions. Look at the path of evil, and there appears to be no hope. Look at the love of God, and there appears to be no fear. Look at both, and we cannot tell which predominates, so full of evil augury is the inevitable momentum of the downward career; so full of promise is the inexhaustible mercy of the infinite love. So far from such contradictions suggesting to us that it is not Revelation with which we are dealing, we doubt whether, human nature being what it is, it would be possible for God to reveal truth to us without revealing what would suggest the most opposite conclusions, according to the different points of view from which we put our questions and try to construct our augury.