THE CONDITION OF MAN NOT BENEFITTED BY THE REJECTION OF CHRISTIANITY.
John vi. 68.—" Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life."
Any system of religion which has had a wide and permanent influence in the world, must be founded on some principles of plausible or solid philosophy. There must be something in human nature, or in the relations of things, which furnishes a basis for it on which to rest, and by which it may be made to appear to the human mind to be true. It may be doubted whether the mind can long cherish error, knowing it to be such, and whether the arguments from supposed interest can be so magnified, and rendered so plausible, that the race would long adhere to what is known to be false. It may be presumed, then, that the great mass of those who have embraced an erroneous system are the victims of delusion; and yet, that the delusion is kept up by something which deserves the name of philosophy. There is as real philosophy at the basis of the views of the heathens now, as there was in the speculations of the Greeks; there is much adaptation to certain wants and laws of human nature in the religion of Mohammed; there are at the basis of the Roman Catholic system those profound views of man, of his wants, and of his passions, which have been ascertained by the keen investigations of more than a thousand years; and neither of these systems is to be overthrown by declamation, or denunciation, or by arguments drawn from superficial views of the nature of man. I would not despise any system of belief which has held on its way amidst fierce discussions and in the face of violent opposition for ages; which has lived while empires have arisen and decayed; and which draws to itself with mighty power the minds of succeeding millions of the race.
It is supposed by many persons now, as it was by those who turned away from the Saviour, that by not embracing Christianity, certain difficulties are avoided which are regarded as inseparable from that system, and that thus dissociated from it they will have nothing more to do with those things which are considered as most perplexing and repulsive. It is supposed that the religion of Christ is encompassed with difficulties from which it is desirable that the human mind should escape, and from which it will escape if the system be rejected.
It is important to institute an examination in regard to this, and to see whether it is so. It cannot be denied that there are certain embarrassments in Christianity, or in things usually associated with it, from which it would be desirable to escape. Can they be avoided by rejecting this system, and embracing any other ? This question I propose to examine, by showing, that there are common evils under which the race labours, and which were not originated by Christianity; that there are common principles which lie at the basis of all systems of religion, and on which all the race must act; and that the rejection of Christianity does not relieve us of those evils, or enable us to act better in accordance with those principles; or, in other words, that we cannot improve our condition by rejecting the Christian system. " Lord, to whom shall we go ? thou hast the words of eternal life."
I. There are common evils under which the race labours, and which were not originated by Christianity. I mean, that they are simple matters of fact which are in no way affected, so far as their existence is concerned, by the solution of the question whether Christianity be true or false. They as much pertain to the system of the Mussulman or the Pagan as to that of the Christian, and the deist and the infidel are as much concerned to explain them as we are. Christianity did not originate those evils, nor has it so modified them, or incorporated them into its system, as to make it particularly incumbent on its friends to explain them. Those evils are no part of religion of any kind, nor can any form of religion be held responsible for them.
Great injustice is often done to religion, and to the Christian religion in particular, by reasoning as if it were responsible for all the evil that there is in the world, and especially as if it had originated sin, and woe, and death. Men seem to feel that these things are indissolubly connected with Christianity, and that that system is to be held answerable for the whole doctrine respecting the fell of man, and the depravity of the race, for the introduction of moral evil, and for the exposure of the race to final ruin. There is a disposition often manifested to throw whatever is odious in these doctrines on the Bible, and to group them and the doctrines of redemption together, as if they were parts of one system, and to regard them as having no claim to the attention of any who may choose to reject the Christian system.
Now, I will not say that there is always designed injustice in this, though I shall endeavour to show you that the injustice is real. There is an illusion about it which I do not doubt affects the minds of many persons who would by no means do injustice to any system of religion, or its friends. The illusion arises from this fact, that all religion, in our world, has much to do with these painful things—the fall, sickness, death, the grave. In other worlds religion may be a materially different thing— the pure and delightful service of a holy God without one gloomy association, for there is no sin there, no sick-bed, no grave. But here, religion must be essentially a remedial system. It will answer no purpose if it is not. It must propose some way for the pardon of sin; some relief in calamity; some consolation in bereavement and death; and it must shed some light on the grave. It seems to be demanded that it should do something to tell us how it was that man came into his present condition ; what, in fact, the condition is, and how it bears on his prospects for the future world. It of necessity, therefore, has much to do with the doctrine of depravity, and with the subject of death—just as the practice of medicine has much to do with diseases and sick-beds. Now, by a very obvious law of mind, we fall into a delusion, and unconsciously do injustice to the system. We group all these things together; regard them as part and parcel of the same system, and think that they must stand or fall together. ■But nothing can be more obviously unjust than such a course. It is as if we should associate the science of medicine and the diseases which it proposes to remedy together, and hold that science responsible for having introduced pleurisies and consumptions into the world, and for all the evils connected with them. It is as if you should suppose that by banishing the science of medicine from the earth, you would at the same time deliver yourselves from pain and death. The truth is, though we seldom fall into the delusion there to which I am adverting in religion, that the healing art is solely a remedial system, and is to be judged as such a system alone. It finds disease already existing; it does not create it: and whether the proposed remedial system turns out to be of value or not, the great original fact on which it is based remains the same. It is altogether isolated; a fact with which every other man is as much concerned as the disciple of Galen.
Or to use another illustration. It is as if the statesman were held responsible for all the original evils of the social system which he proposes to remedy; and as if, instead of judging of the constitution which he proposes merely as a remedial system, we group that and all the evils which he proposes to correct together, and by rejecting his system suppose that we get rid of all concern about those evils. Or, still further, it is as if we were to hold the historian responsible for the crimes and calamities of which he makes a record, and to suppose that by denying the credibility of his statements, the facts which he has recorded cease to be true. A large part of the Bible, in introducing the account of the remedial system, is occupied in a mere statement of facts about the fall and depravity of man. But the sacred historian did not originate the fall or the depravity of man, any more than Livy or Hume did the wars with the Sabines, or the contests between the red and white roses; nor should the Bible, or the system of religion which it reveals, be held responsible for those facts any more than Gibbon should be for the character of Nero and Caligula, or than the Father of history should for the plague at Athens. A history should be held answerable only as a record of facts. The facts are independent things, and remain the same, whether recorded or not. A remedial system should be held answerable only as such, and not at all for the evils which it proposes to remedy. Those evils are independent things, having no immediate connexion with that system, and are evils in which others are as much concerned as its friends. It should be held answerable, not for the introduction or the existence of the evil, but only for what it proposes to do, and for the fair inferences which follow from its influence on a system already existing.
With these indisputable principles before us, I now remark, that Christianity did not originate the evils of our race, and is no more responsible for them than infidelity is. They are matters of simple Fact, whether Christianity be true or false— as it is a fact that there is disease in the world, and that men suffer and die, whether the remedies proposed answer the purpose or not. The atheist, the deist, the man of the world, the man of science, the historian, the moralist, the epicurean, and the stoic, have as much to do with them as the Christian, and are as much bound to explain them. We meet on common ground here, and in the development of our different systems we start together.
Let us look a moment at some of those facts:— (1.) Man is a fallen being; a sinner. Can there be any difference of opinion on this point ? The Bible records the fact; and do not Livy, and Sallust, and Hume, and Gibbon, and Baronius, and Alison do the same thing ? Is there any historical record which describes man as any otherwise than as a sinner ? The accounts of the perfection or perfectability of man arc in philosophical speculations, not in historical records. The Bible describes man as prone to evil. And does not every man so regard the race ? What mean the laws made to restrain men ? What mean prisons, and padlocks, and securities against fraud and dishonesty ? Is there a merchant who would repose quietly on his pillow if there were not a strong and skilfully constructed lock on his store ? Is there a vault of a bank that could be safely left open for a single night ? Is there a man who does not make it his business to guard against the fraud, duplicity, cunning, and violence of every other man as if he would do wrong ?
A"ow, about the fact of the depravity of man there surely can be no manner of doubt. The fact exists, whatever remedy is proposed ; whatever statement is made of its origin; or however you may account for it. It no more pertains to the Christian, or to his theory of religion, than it does to the theory or religion of any other man. Men do not get rid of it by denying Christianity; they do not make it any worse by embracing it. It belongs to the race as such, and wc must make the best of it. "Whether Christianity be true or false, the evil is the same, and all men will continue to act as if the doctrine were true. We may differ in our explanations about the way in which man became a sinner; we may speculate in a different manner in regard to the time when he begins to go astray; we may have different views about the condition of the infant mind; and we might not agree as to the exact connexion between facts which now exist, and the act of the progenitor of the race, but the material facts pertain to one system as much as to another. Kcvealed religion is in no way peculiarly concerned about it, except that it has offered an explanation of the manner in which sin has come into the world, and it is responsible only for that explanation.
(2.) The same is true in regard to sickness and suffering. Man is a sufferer, whatever system of religion be embraced or rejected. The earth is a vale of tears, and no art of man can drive sickness, care, bereavement, or pain from it. That the race suffers is a great fact which is in no way affected by the question whether this or that form of religion be true or false, except as religion may in some way mitigate sorrow. We may differ as to the cause of suffering. We may have our different theories in explanation of the question how it is consistent with the government of God. We may inquire whether sin is the cause, proximate or remote, or whether it is to be traced wholly to some physical laws; but the fact remains the same, and it pertains no more to the Christian system than to any other. Christianity has originated no disease. It has not generated the malaria of the Pontine marshes; it does not give birth to the plague in Cairo or Constantinople, nor has■it caused the cholera which sweeps over the plains of India. There is not a disease to which the human frame is subject that has been either increased or aggravated by the Christian religion, or for which the Christian religion, or any other religion, is responsible. There is not one of them that would be healed by burning the last Bible on the earth, or by driving the last vestige of religion from the world.
(3.) Thus, too, it is with the mental sorrows to which the race is subject. The illusion to which I have adverted operates with more power here than it does in regard to the point just referred to. There is no one who would directly charge Christianity with being the cause of a cancer or of consumption; but there is many a one who would suffer the illusion to play around the mind that it is the cause of the mental sorrows to which we are subject, and that those sorrows are parts of this system of religion. There has been a steady effort, though not always open and avowed, to connect these sorrows and Christianity together, and to lead men to suppose that by casting off the restraints of religion they free themselves from mental griefs. The reason of this illusion I have already adverted to, and the injustice of the feeling may be seen at a glance. An effort has been made to make it appear to a world that seeks to be gay, that somehow the alarms of conscience, the dread of death, and the apprehension of the world to come, are the creation of Christianity, and that religion is responsible for their existence in the soul. But is this so ? Can it be so ? Do these things exist nowhere else ? Are they found under no other system of religion ? Are they never found where there is no religion of any kind ? And is it true that by casting off the Christian religion a man obtains a guarantee that he will never be troubled by the remembrance of guilt; that he will escape from remorse of conscience; that he will not be overborne by the fear of death ? He must have studied the world very imperfectly who can suppose that these things are the creation of religion, or that they have any peculiar relation to religion of any kind whatever. The truth is, they belong to us as men. They are the operation of great laws of our nature. They lie back of all religion, and would not be affected, except by being deepened, if you were to sweep every Bible and every Christian church from every land.
(4.) The same thing is true in regard to death. Here, too, the illusion to which I have adverted constantly operates. There is a feeling somehow that death, always a painful subject of reflection, peculiarly pertains to religion, and a serious contemplation of death, or a remark made about it as a personal matter, is somehow regarded as an omen that one is becoming religious. But what has religion particularly to do with the subject of death ? Did it introduce it into the world ? Has it aggravated its pangs ? Do religious people only die ? Can a man, by becoming an infidel or an uersal sceptic, avoid dying ? Will it drive death from the world to laugh at religion; or would it if it could be proved that all religion is imposture ? The truth is— and it is a truth so obvious that it would hardly be proper formally to state it if it were not for the illusion already referred to—that death pertains to our race, whether Christianity be true or false. Religion did not introduce it, and is in no way responsible for it; nor is death in any way modified, whatever opinions may be entertained of Christianity, or of any other system of religion. We may differ in our explanations of it. I may have my theory about the cause, and you may have yours, and still the fact remains the same. Death approaches with the same steady pace, and with the same repulsive aspect, whatever may be the nature of our speculations. Religion does not quicken his pace, nor does infidelity retard it; and he is just as likely to come into the ball-room, or among a company of savans speculating on its cause, or among a company of revellers blaspheming all religion, as into the church of the living God. We are all brothers here, and we all have an equal interest in this matter. The entrance of death into our world was prior to the entrance of Christianity, and if Christianity should take its everlasting flight from the earth, the angel of death would linger here, glad of her departure, for he could make the pains of death more terrific than they are now.
If these things are so, then all men have the same interest in them. They lie apart from all religion as indisputable Facts, and they pertain as much to the infidel as the Christian ; as much really to the scientific lecture-room as to the pulpit. Religion finds these things in existence ; it does not create them, and is in no manner responsible lor them. Christianity found thcin upon the earth, as Galen and Hippocrates found disease, and for their existence there is no more responsibility in the one case than in the other. Here we begin our investigations together, having the same facts to deal with, and with the certainty that the adoption or rejection of any particular form of religion does not materially alter them. The point now illustrated is, that the Christian, the infidel, and the scoffer, are equally concerned in these facts, for they pertain to man whatever form of religion he has, or whether he has any religion or none. This leads me,
II. In the second place, to observe, that as there are evils pertaining to our race which lie back of religion, and in which all men have a common interest, so there are certain principles which pertain to all men; principles supposed to be true by the Christian religion, but which are in no way affected by the question whether Christianity be true or false; principles which are better met by that system than by any other. My limits will not allow me to illustrate them at length; and all that I can do is to advert to them in the most summary manner. Among those principles are the following :—
(1.) That man is a moral agent, and in this respect differs from the whole brute creation beneath him. I say that this pertains to man as such, for it cannot be pretended that the Bible, or the Christian system, has so altered the nature of man as to make him a moral agent. He is so under every system of religion, and is equally so whether Christianity be true or false. It would be easy to show that the Bible recognises this, and adapts itself to it better than any other system of religion.
(2.) That he is under a moral government. I mean that there are marks of a moral government over the world entirely independent of Christianity, or that there is a course of events which tends to the punishment of vice and the reward of virtue. It is possible to make out the great principles of this government without the aid of revelation, for it was seen and understood when there was no revelation. The course of events in the world is such that, as a great law, one course of conduct will be followed by life, health, happiness, and a good name; another by disease, poverty, wretchedness, disgrace, and a dishonoured grave. Innumerable facts in the world, and long observation, show what is the course which will tend to the one or the other, and so clearly that it may be the basis of counsel to those who are entering on the career of life. These principles accord with those in the Bible, and have received an additional sanction from the Bible, but they exist independently of any particular form of religion, and are those on which men must act. They are met and carried out better by Christianity than by any other system, for the whole arrangement is one that is designed to exhibit ultimately the perfection of moral government.
(3.) Man's future condition will in some way be determined by his present conduct. This, too, is a principle on which all men act by nature, whether they have, or have not, any religion, or whether any particular form of religion be true or false. Every young man admits it as one of the things which spur him on to great or noble efforts, and which encourage him in study, in resisting temptation, or in laying his plans of life ; and every man who has reached mature life or old age, sees that it has been so in regard to himself. He can trace the esteem in which he is held, or the health which he enjoys, or the property which he has accumulated, to his conduct and plans far back in life, and can see how the one is but the development of the other. This principle is indeed an essential one in Christianity; but it is not peculiar to it, nor has it been originated by it. It is in the world everywhere, and the man who rejects religion acts on it as certainly as he who embraces it.
(4.) It is a principle which is held in common by all, that the conduct of the present life may affect that which is to come. This is but carrying out the principle just stated, for why should the operation of this law terminate at death ? What is there in death to check it? Why should the act of dying arrest this course of things any more than the slumbers of a night ? For, as the conduct of yesterday travels over the interval of the nightwatches, and meets us in its results to-day, why shall not the same law operate in reference to the shorter night—the sleep of death ? Here is a uniform system of things, that our conduct at present affects our future destiny; uniform as far as the eye can run it backward into past generations; uniform, so as to become the foundation of laws, and of the entire government of the world; and uniform so far as the eye can trace the results of conduct forward in all the landmarks set up along our future course. Why should it be arrested by so unimportant a circumstance as death—death that less suspends human consciousness and action than a night's sleep; death that no more interrupts identity, and arrests the course of events in regard to an individual, than a passage from one land to another, or than the crossing of the conventional boundary of a kingdom ? And as crime here meets its results after we have crossed oceans, and snows, and sands ; as punishment, in remorse of conscience, in the storm, in the siroc, in the ocean, may follow us when far from country and home, in lands of strangers, where no eye may recognise us but that of the unseen Witness of our actions, why shall not the results of our conduct meet us beyond the little rivulet of death ? That the conduct of this life is to be followed by results appropriate to it in the world to come is not a peculiar principle of Christianity; it pertains to the almost uersal faith of man, and enters into all the religions of man. It is one of those great principles on which man must act whether Christianity or any other particular form of religion be regarded as true or false. And yet there is no provision made to meet this principle fully in any other system of religion but the Christian.
(5.) It is an original principle pertaining to man as such that a future state of existence is desirable. The language of Addison, which we so much admire, is not mere poetry. He utters the feelings of all men, when he says—
"Whence this secret dread and inward horror
Of falling tnto nought ? Why shrinks the soul
Back on herself, and startles at destruction ?
'Tis the divinity that stirs within us;
'Tis Heaven itself that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.—Cato, Act v.
Man has this desire everywhere, and a large portion of his reasonings from the earliest days downward has been designed to show that it was proper for him to cherish it. It is not created by the Christian religion. It lies beyond that, and exists in the soul, with all its intensity, whether Christianity or any other particular form of religion be true:—but what other system of religion so fully meets it as this ?
(6.) It is somehow a great law of our nature that we need an atonement for our transgressions—that some sacrifice or oblation should be made that will appease the wrath of God, and do honour to a violated law, and open a way of pardon to the guilty. This is not originated by Christianity, nor is it peculiar to it. It is found in every land, among all people, and in every age. The evidence of it is seen on every bloody altar, and in the creeds of nearly all foyns of religion. But where is this so fully met; where is there any form of atonement by which its demands are so fully accomplished, as in the sacrifice made by Christ ? That meets all that we think the law demands ; does all that can be done to repair the evils of the apostasy; and leaves the mind wholly at rest as to the necessity of any other sacrifice for the sins of the world.
(7.) And a well-founded, or seventh principle is equally uersal. It is, that this world does not furnish all the happiness of which we are capable. Our nature pants for something more ; it looks on to something still future. We partake of the happiness which this world can give, but there is still a " void" in the soul which is not filled. We look into the future. We try to lift the veil which hides the invisible world. We believe, in spite of ourselves, that if the soul is ever satisfied it must be by something there. This desire, too, is not the creation of the Christian religion. It lies back of that religion in the soul of man, and exists in the human bosom whether that religion be true or false.
Such are some of the evils under which the race groans, and such some of the principles on which the race must act. They are evils and principles which exist independently of any system of religion, and yet which demand some arrangement to meet them, and in reference to which every scheme of religion has been originated. We are led here to our
III. Third general inquiry—to what system can we go where there are fewer perplexities; where these evils are better met; and where these principles are better consulted, than in the Christian system? "Will ye also go away?" said the Saviour to his 'disciples. " Lord, to whom shall we go ?" asked Peter ; " thou hast the words of eternal life ?" To what teacher should they repair who would be better qualified to instruct them ? To what Jewish party should they apply, that they might better learn the way to heaven ? To what sect of philosophers should they go, that they might find more consolation in the ills of life, be better supported in its trials, and find a more satisfactory answer to those questions which their very nature prompted them to ask ? Difficulties there might be in the Christian religion, but where would they find fewer ? Mysteries there might be, but where could they go where there were none ?
And where will a man go now to find a system that is better fitted to meet the evils of the present world, or to carry out and satisfy the great original principles on which he must act ? For you will remember that the question is not, whether by rejecting Christianity he may avoid these evils, or whether the race will cease to act on these principles. Those points are settled; and whether Christianity be embraced or rejected, they pertain to the race. The question is, whether he can improve his condition in regard to these things by rejecting this revelation, and turning to some other system ? This is a fair question, and one which it becomes every man to answer for himself. It should be answered. Christianity proposes a remedy for these evils, and a way by which these great principles of our nature may be met and carried out. It does not originate these things, and should not be held answerable for them. It is in all respects, and in every aspect of it, a remedial system, and should be examined and judged only as such. Man by nature, sunk under sin, and exposed to pain and death, seeks some system which shall meet his sad condition, and alleviate his sorrows. He looks around for some way by which his sin may be forgiven ; by which a propitiation may be made for his offences ; by which he may obtain consolation in the prospect of dying. The gospel comes, and proposes a method of meeting his cose, and declares that sin may be forgiven through the atonement made by the Son of God, and opens upon him the prospect of a resurrection and a glorious immortality. Now is not this just what he wants, and can he find a system that will better answer the end than this ? For you will remember, I repeat it, that the question is not whether by rejecting this system you can avoid sin and pain and death. That point is so settled as not to admit of debate. But do not these things which Christianity has revealed meet the ease ? Can sinful, suffering, and dying man find a system that will better meet his condition ? Where will he turn to find a better system ? Will he go to heathenism ? But would he find any sacrifice there for sin which for purity, and dignity, and efficacy would compare with that of the Son of God ? Will he, then, consent to blot out all that Christianity has done for society, and place the race again in the condition of the Caffrarian or the Bushman ? Does he suppose that the evils of the world would be mitigated by a return to that condition in which man was before the light of Christianity dawned on it ? Will he turn to the ancient philosophers ? And does he suppose that they can explain the mysteries of his being, and provide a better deliverance, than has been done by Him whom the Father has sent into the world ? Let him become an Epicurean or a Stoic. Does he escape from the perplexities which he has been accustomed to associate with Christianity ? Do not the Epicurean and the Stoic sin and suffer and die; and do not men sin and suffer and die all around them ? Will he turn to the modern philosopher, or the modern infidel? Do they propose a better way by which a guilty conscience may become calm ; by which life's sorrows may be borne, and by which the pangs of death may be more patiently or triumphantly endured ? Or does he escape from any of the mysteries and perplexities which encompass this subject when associated with Christianity? Do no other men but Christians die ? Do they have no trouble of conscience ? Are they never sick ? Did not Paine, and Volney, and Hume die ? And have they left any recipe by which death can be more calmly met and better borne than it was by Stephen, and Paul, and Halyburton, and Baxter, and Payson ?
Oh, what is this world when we have turned away from the cross of Christ, and from the instruction which God has given us in his word ? Man is seen upon the earth a strange being, playing a strange part, and encircled by mysteries. He has been created he knows not by whom, or when, or for what purpose. He begins to sin as soon as he begins to act, but he knows not why. He finds himself prone to evil by some mysterious law for which there is no explanation. He suffers, he knows not why. He lives, he knows not for what end; and when he dies he goes into another world, he knows not whither or why. He can do nothing to stay the progress of the plague which sweeps away the race, and he can only stand and weep over the grave which he digs for his pale brother, and which he himself must soon enter. He stretches out his hands to heaven as if there might be help there, but none appears. " His eye poiireth out tears" as it is lifted toward the skies ; it gazes intensely for light, but not a ray is seen. His nature pants to live for ever, but no response is given to the aspirings of his soul; nothing tells him that he may live. He is a poor, ignorant, degraded, and dying being, seeking for a guide, and panting for a system of religion that will meet the wants of his nature, and raise him up to God. Revealed religion comes and tells him who made him, and why ; explains the way in which the race sank into this melancholy condition, and how it may be recovered; proposes promises adapted to him as an immortal being ; reveals a brighter world, and explains to him how it may be his own. It originates no new form of disease; dips the arrow of death in no new poison ; creates no new darkness around the grave ; robs the sufferer of no consolation, and creates no new danger. Then why, oh why should he go away?