Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Assurance of Immortality

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Assurance of Immortality

By James Morris Whiton (1833–1920)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1833. Died in New York, N. Y., 1920. The Law of Liberty and Other Discourses. 1889.]

IN the reign of Henry VIII., Sir Thomas More, the foremost Englishman of his time, was required to take a new oath of allegiance, in which was a clause affirming that the King’s divorce from Catherine, his first queen, was, in a religious point of view, valid. This More did not in his conscience believe, and therefore declined to sully his conscience by swearing falsely. For his refusal he was brought to the scaffold as a traitor and beheaded, while many of his fellow Catholics saved themselves by committing perjury. The question is, whether More, by his heroic fidelity to conscience merely contributed to keep integrity alive in other men, who admired his example, or whether, beside this, he kept his own integrity alive, although his body perished.

Let us imagine a modern disbeliever in immortality arguing with More to persuade him not to resolve on death.

Your integrity is dear to you, Sir Thomas, but what is integrity? It is only a refined sort of taste, a very delicate physical sensation, as much a part of bodily nature as your preference for the fragrance of a rose. If you save your life by consenting to this required perjury, you cannot, of course, enjoy your integrity as you have hitherto. But that will be only parting with one sweet odor; you will have one enjoyable physical sensation less than now. And this you can, no doubt, make up by some new or increased enjoyment in other directions. You will, of course, for a time feel a certain disgust, but that is also a wholly physical matter, like a vile smell in the nostrils, and this you will, no doubt, be able to banish in time by various agreeable expedients. Men never hesitate to sacrifice a limb or an eye to save their life, and your integrity is a mere function of your brain, the same as your sight. Why not sacrifice it to the royal mandate rather than take it to the scaffold, where in a moment you will lose it and everything else forever—all your fine feelings and what you call conscience vanishing utterly at the fall of the axe in the last breath that gurgles from your headless trunk? Nay, rather, yield as others yield, keep what you can of life, family, friends, enjoyments, honors, for many years to come.

Such is the plea with which a denial of the immortal life of the spirit reënforces the natural instinct of the throbbing animal life which recoils from death as its destroyer. And yet, in spite of all the ghastly terrors in the way, in spite of the repugnance of a sensitive nature to encounter its destroyer, in spite of all the doubts that are raised when, to offset the visible and tangible benefits of continued life in this world, there is nothing to cast into the opposite scale except what is invisible—a simple faith and hope—the self-preserving instinct of the moral life girds the martyr of principle with an invincible courage to lay life down that he may take it again.

Shall any thinking man here say that there is no life to take again which is independent of the failing heart-beat? Did More keep his integrity, but keep no life of integrity? One can say so only by the sacrifice of reason to absurdity. Either integrity is perishable, or the life to which integrity belongs is imperishable.

But what stark unreason it is to say that the dictate of the moral instinct of our nature, which bids us to part with life for the keeping of integrity, is less rational than the dictate of the physical instinct, which bids us part with integrity for the keeping of life! And when we see and applaud the action of moral heroes and saints, in whom the self-preserving instinct of the animal life is met and overborne in its most imperious demands by the self-preserving instinct of the moral nature, what blind unreason, again, it is, to say that the defeated instinct to save the body pointed to a substantial advantage; but the conquering instinct to lay life down to take it again pointed to something unsubstantial—a mere shadow and illusion! Beyond demonstration to our senses as is the life to be taken again, in contrast with the life of the senses which is laid down, it is made good to our reason as an absolute certainty by this one fact—that, if there were no such life to come, we could give no rational account of the action of our higher nature, our moral instincts. We should be forced to admit that the noblest part of human nature is the most deceptive and the most irrational.

When, therefore, Professor Drummond, with many other eminent Christian thinkers, says that immortality is the one point in the Christian system which most needs verification from without, by some proof of an external sort, we regret it as a most incautious and unwarrantable concession. On the contrary, we are compelled to insist that the exact contrary is the only true statement. We have to believe in the life which we have not seen, simply because it is a necessity of reason for the rational explanation of the phenomena of human nature. Similarly, we have to believe in other things invisible, because they are necessary to reason. The ether which fills all space, through which the stars move, no eye has seen. Yet that there is such an ether is the faith of science. Why? Because the phenomena of light can be explained only by the existence of this invisible ether. Such scientists as Professor Tyndall tell us we must believe it to be a reality, because it is a postulate of reason for the rational explanation of the action of light. Precisely on this scientific ground of rational necessity the doctrine of immortality rests, besides the declaration of the Scriptures. The evidence for it from the action of our moral nature is so convincing, that a distinguished writer of the last century—Samuel Clarke—declared that, even though there were no other revelation, it could not be gainsaid or doubted. In just this point we can also appeal to one of the most celebrated names of modern science. Says Professor Huxley: “If one is able to make good the assertion that his theology rests upon valid evidence and sound reasoning, such theology must take its place as a part of science.” In view of what we are thus encouraged to claim as a scientific verification of immortality, we may now quote the remark of another of the great scientists of our time. Said Herbert Spencer: “How truly its central position is impregnable, religion has never adequately realized.”

That an assurance of immortality is the central necessity of religion is evident. As there is no progress of any kind without self-denial, as there is no self-denial of any kind without the expectation of a gain to overbalance the sacrifice, so all moral progress, all growth of virtue, is at an end, if there is an end to the hope of life to be taken up when this life is laid down.

When so saying, we do not forget the splendid instances of self-devotion in many, who have met death bravely in a noble cause without the sustaining hope of a life to come. But in these we see that gracious provision of God, through which, when reason falters, instinct takes its place. In such instinctive heroism, unsustained by conscious reason, we see just what we see in the unreasoning sagacity of the lower animals. It is the action of the Universal Mind, intelligently working in the blindly acting creature.

But while we recognize this, we see, on the other hand, what history shows without exception. No human virtue has ever been able to propagate itself from generation to generation, to redeem society from gravitation into profligacy and moral ruin, or to make truth and righteousness spread in the world, apart from a rational conviction of the life to come. Apart from that conviction, at once awing and inspiring, men generally act upon the maxim, that “a living dog is belter than a dead lion,” and prefer to live like dogs than to die like lions. A bound is set to the power of truth, conscience, duty, by any suspicion that the grave is the bound which is set to life. It is only the hand of Immortality that draws aside the veil which this world casts over the face of God as our Judge. It is only the fore-gleams of Eternity which cast a saving light on our pathway, so beset by the precipice and the pit. This kindly light God has implanted as the central instinct of our souls. It is ours to cherish as His most precious gift to reason. It is ours to follow as our most precious guide to the Father’s blessing and the Father’s house.