But now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire.
This is one of the Royal texts of the New Testament. It declares one of those great laws of the kingdom of God, which may fulfil itself, once and again, at many eras, and by many methods; which fulfilled itself especially and most gloriously in the first century after Christ; which fulfilled itself again in the fifth century; and again at the time of the Crusades; and again at the great Reformation in the sixteenth century; and is fulfilling itself again at this very day.
Now, in our fathers' time, and in our own unto this day, is the Lord Christ shaking the heavens and the earth, that those things which are made may be removed, and that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. We all confess this fact, in different phrases. We say that we live in an age of change, of transition, of scientific and social revolution. Our notions of the physical universe are rapidly altering with the new discoveries of science; and our notions of Ethics and Theology are altering as rapidly.
The era looks differently to different minds, just as the first century after Christ looked differently, according as men looked with faith towards the future, or with regret towards the past. Some rejoice in the present era as one of progress. Others lament over it as one of decay. Some say that we are on the eve of a Reformation, as great and splendid as that of the sixteenth century. Others say that we are rushing headlong into scepticism and atheism. Some say that a new era is dawning on humanity; others that the world and the Church are coming to an end, and the last day is at hand. Both parties may be right, and both may be wrong. Men have always talked thus at great crises. They talked thus in the first century, in the fifth, in the eleventh, in the sixteenth. And then both parties were right, and yet both wrong. And why not now? What they meant to say, and what they mean to say now, is what he who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews said for them long ago in far deeper, wider, more accurate words--that the Lord Christ was shaking the heavens and the earth, that those things which can be shaken may be removed, as things which are made--cosmogonies, systems, theories, fashions, prejudices, of man's invention: while those things which cannot be shaken may remain, because they are eternal, the creation not of man, but of God.
'Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.' Not merely the physical world, and man's conceptions thereof; but the spiritual world, and man's conceptions of that likewise.
How have our conceptions of the physical world been shaken of late, with ever-increasing violence! How simple, and easy, and certain, it all looked to our forefathers! How complex, how uncertain, it looks to us! With increased knowledge has come--not increased doubt--that I deny; but increased reverence; increased fear of rash assertions, increased awe of facts, as the acted words and thoughts of God. Once for all, I deny that this age is an irreverent one. I say that an irreverent age is an age like the Middle Age, in which men dared to fancy that they could and did know all about earth and heaven; and set up their petty cosmogonies, their petty systems of doctrine, as measures of the ways of that God whom the heaven and the heaven of heavens, cannot contain.
It was simple enough, their theory of the universe. The earth was a flat plain; for did not the earth look flat? Or if some believed the earth to be a globe, yet the existence of antipodes was an unscriptural heresy. Above were the heavens: first the lower heavens in which the stars were fixed and moved; and above them heaven after heaven, each peopled of higher orders, up to that heaven of heavens in which Deity--and by Him, the Mother of Deity--were enthroned.
And below--What could be more clear, more certain, than this--that as above the earth was the kingdom of light, and joy, and holiness, so below the earth was the kingdom of darkness, and torment, and sin? What could be more certain? Had not even the heathens said so, by the mouth of the poet Virgil? What could be more simple, rational, orthodox, than to adopt (as they actually did) Virgil's own words, and talk of Tartarus, Styx, and Phlegethon, as indisputable Christian entities. They were not aware that the Buddhists of the far East had held much the same theory of endless retribution several centuries before; and that Dante, with his various bolge, tenanted each by its various species of sinners, was merely re-echoing the horrors which are to be seen painted on the walls of any Buddhist temple, as they were on the walls of so many European churches during the Middle Ages, when men really believed in that same Tartarology, with the same intensity with which they now believe in the conclusions of astronomy or of chemistry.
To them, indeed, it was all an indisputable or physical fact, as any astronomic or chemical fact would have been; for they saw it with their own eyes.
Virgil had said that the mouth of Tartarus was there in Italy, by the volcanic lake of Avernus; and after the first eruption of Vesuvius in the first century, nothing seemed more probable. Etna, Stromboli, Hecla, must be, likewise, all mouths of hell; and there were not wanting holy hermits who had heard within those craters, shrieks and clanking chains, and the shouts of demons tormenting endlessly the souls of the lost. And now, how has all this been shaken? How much of all this does any educated man, though he be pious, though he desire with all his heart to be orthodox--and is orthodox in fact-- how much of all this does he believe, as he believes that the earth is round, or, that if he steals his neighbour's goods he commits a crime?
For, since these days, the earth has been shaken, and with it the heavens likewise, in that very sense in which the expression is used in the text. Our conceptions of them have been shaken. The Copernican system shook them, when it told men that the earth was but a tiny globular planet revolving round the sun. Geology shook them, when it told men that the earth has endured for countless ages, during which whole continents have been submerged, whole seas become dry land, again and again. Even now the heavens and the earth are being shaken by researches into the antiquity of the human race, and into the origin and the mutability of species, which, issue in what results they may, will shake for us, meanwhile, theories which are venerable with the authority of nearly eighteen hundred years, and of almost every great Doctor since St. Augustine.
And as our conception of the physical universe has been shaken, the old theory of a Tartarus beneath the earth has been shaken also, till good men have been glad to place Tartarus in a comet, or in the sun, or to welcome the possible, but unproved hypothesis, of a central fire in the earth's core, not on any scientific grounds, but if by any means a spot may be found in space corresponding to that of which Virgil, Dante, and Milton sang.
And meanwhile--as was to be expected from a generation which abhors torture, labours for the reformation of criminals, and even doubts whether it should not abolish capital punishment--a shaking of the heavens is abroad, of which we shall hear more and more, as the years roll on--a general inclination to ask whether Holy Scripture really endorses the Middle-age notions of future punishment in endless torment? Men are writing and speaking on this matter, not merely with ability and learning, but with a piety, and reverence for Scripture which (rightly or wrongly employed) must, and will, command attention. They are saying that it is not those who deny these notions who disregard the letter of Scripture, but those who assert them; that they are distorting the plain literal text, in order to make Scripture fit the writings of Dante and Milton, when they translate into 'endless torments after death,' such phrases as the outer darkness, the undying worm, the Gehenna of fire--which manifestly (say these men), if judged by fair rules of interpretation, refer to this life, and specially to the fate of the Jewish nation: or when they tell us that eternal death means really eternal life, only in torments. We demand, they say, not a looser, but a stricter; not a more metaphoric, but a more literal; not a more careless, but a more reverent interpretation of Scripture; and whether this demand be right or wrong, it will not pass unheard.
And even more severely shaken, meanwhile, is that mediaeval conception of heaven and hell, by the question which educated men are asking more and more:- 'Heaven and hell--the spiritual world--Are they merely invisible places in space, which may become visible hereafter? or are they not rather the moral world--the world of right and wrong? Love and righteousness--is not that the heaven itself wherein God dwells? Hatred and sin--is not that hell itself, wherein dwells all that is opposed to God?'
And out of that thought, right or wrong, other thoughts have sprung-- of ethics, of moral retribution--not new at all (say these men), but to be found in Scripture, and in the writings of all great Christian divines, when they have listened, not to systems, but to the voice of their own hearts.
'We do not deny' (they say) 'that the wages of sin are death. We do not deny the necessity of punishment--the certainty of punishment. We see it working awfully enough around us in this life; we believe that it may work in still more awful forms in the life to come. Only tell us not that it must be endless, and thereby destroy its whole purpose, and (as we think) its whole morality. We, too, believe in an eternal fire; but we believe its existence to be, not a curse, but a Gospel and a blessing, seeing that that fire is God Himself, who taketh away the sins of the world, and of whom it is therefore written, Our God is a consuming fire.'
Questions, too, have arisen, of--'What IS moral retribution? Should punishment have any end but the good of the offender? Is God so controlled that He must needs send into the world beings whom He knows to be incorrigible, and doomed to endless misery? And if not so controlled, then is not the other alternative as to His character more fearful still? Does He not bid us copy Him, His justice, His love? Then is that His justice, is that His love, which if we copied we should be unjust and unloving utterly? Are there two moralities, one for God, and quite another for man, made in the image of God? Can these dark dogmas be true of a Father who bids us be perfect as He is, in that He sends His sun to shine on the evil and the good, and His rain on the just and unjust? Or of a Son who so loved the world that He died to save the world and surely not in vain?'
These questions--be they right or wrong--educated men and women of all classes and denominations--orthodox, be it remembered, as well as unorthodox--are asking, and will ask more and more, till they receive an answer. And if we of the clergy cannot give them an answer which accords with their conscience and their reason; if we tell them that the words of Scripture, and the integral doctrines of Christianity, demand the same notions of moral retribution as were current in the days when men racked criminals, burned heretics alive, and believed that every Mussulman whom they slaughtered in a crusade went straight to endless torments,--then evil times will come, both for the clergy and the Christian religion, for many a yeas henceforth.
What then are we to believe? What are we to do, amid this shaking of the earth and heaven? Are we to degenerate into a lazy and heartless scepticism, which, under pretence of liberality and charity, believes that everything is a little true, everything is a little false--in one word, believes nothing at all? Or are we to degenerate into unmanly and faithless wailings, crying out that the flood of infidelity is irresistible, that the last days are come, and that Christ has deserted His Church?
Not if we will believe the text. The text tells us of something which cannot be moved, though all around it reel and crumble--of a firm standing-ground, which would endure, though the heavens should pass away as a scroll, and the earth should be removed, and cast into the midst of the sea.
We have a kingdom, the Scripture says, which cannot be moved, even the kingdom of Him whom it calls shortly after 'Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day and for ever.' An eternal and unchangeable kingdom, ruled by an eternal and unchangeable King. That is what cannot be moved.
Scripture does not say that we have an unchangeable cosmogony, an unchangeable theory of moral retribution, an unchangeable system of dogmatic propositions. Whether we have, or have not, it is not of them that Scripture reminds the Jews, when the heavens and the earth were shaken; when their own nation and worship were in their death- agony, and all the beliefs and practices of men were in a whirl of doubt and confusion, of decay and birth side by side, such as the world had never seen before. Not of them does it remind the Jews, but of the changeless kingdom, and the changeless King.
My friends, lay it seriously to heart, once and for all. Do you believe that you are subjects of that kingdom, and that Christ is the living, ruling, guiding King thereof? Whatsoever Scripture does not say, Scripture speaks of that, again and again, in the plainest terms. But do you believe it? These are days in which the preacher ought to ask every man whether he believes it, and bid him, of whatever else he repents of, to repent, at least, of not having believed this primary doctrine (I may almost say) of Scripture and of Christianity.
But if you do believe it, will it seem strange to you to believe this also,--That, considering who Christ is, the co-eternal and co-equal Son of God, He may be actually governing His kingdom; and if so, that He may know better how to govern it than such poor worms as we? That if the heavens and the earth be shaken, Christ Himself may be shaking them? if opinions be changing, Christ Himself may be changing them? If new truths and facts are being discovered, Christ Himself may be revealing them? That if those truths seem to contradict the truths which He has already taught us, they do not really contradict them, any more than those reasserted in the sixteenth century? That if our God be a consuming fire, He is now burning up (to use St. Paul's parable) the chaff and stubble which men have built on the one foundation of Christ, that, at last, nought but the pure gold may remain? Is it not possible? Is it not most probable, if we only believe that Christ is a real, living King, an active, practical King,--who, with boundless wisdom and skill, love and patience, is educating and guiding Christendom, and through Christendom the whole human race?
If men would but believe that, how different would be their attitude toward new facts, toward new opinions! They would receive them with grace; gracefully, courteously, fairly, charitably, and with that reverence and godly fear which the text tells us is the way to serve God acceptably. They would say: 'Christ (so the Scripture tells us) has been educating man through Abraham, through Moses, through David, through the Jewish prophets, through the Greeks, through the Romans; then through Himself, as man as well as God; and after His ascension, through His Apostles, especially through St. Paul, to an ever- increasing understanding of God, and the universe, and themselves. And even after their time He did not cease His education. Why should He? How could He, who said of Himself, "All power is given to me in heaven and earth;" "Lo, I am with you alway to the end of the world;" and again, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work?"
'At the Reformation in the sixteenth century He called on our forefathers to repent--that is, to change their minds--concerning opinions which had been undoubted for more than a thousand years. Why should He not be calling on us at this time likewise? And if any answer, that the Reformation was only a return to the primitive faith of the Apostles--Why should not this shaking of the hearts and minds of men issue in a still further return, in a further correction of errors, a further sweeping away of additions, which are not integral to the Christian creeds, but which were left behind, through natural and necessary human frailty, by our great Reformers? Wise they were,--good and great,--as giants on the earth, while we are but as dwarfs; but, as the hackneyed proverb tells us, the dwarf on the giant's shoulders may see further than the giant himself.'
Ah! that men would approach new truth in that spirit; in the spirit of godly fear, which is inspired by the thought that we are in the kingdom of God, and that the King thereof is Christ, both God and man, once crucified for us, now living for us for ever! Ah! that they would thus serve God, waiting, as servants before a lord, for the slightest sign which might intimate his will! Then they would look at new truths with caution; in that truly conservative spirit which is the duty of all Christians, and the especial strength of the Englishman. With caution,--lest in grasping eagerly after what is new, we throw away truth which we have already: but with awe and reverence; for Christ may have sent the new truth; and he who fights against it, may haply be found fighting against God. And so would they indeed obey the Apostolic injunction--Prove all things, hold fast that which is good,--that which is pure, fair, noble, tending to the elevation of men; to the improvement of knowledge, justice, mercy, well-being; to the extermination of ignorance, cruelty, and vice. That, at least, must come from Christ, unless the Pharisees were right when they said that evil spirits could be cast out by Beelzebub, prince of the devils.
How much more Christian, reverent, faithful, as well as more prudent, rational, and philosophical, would such a temper be than that which condemns all changes a priori, at the first hearing, or rather, too often, without any hearing at all, in rage and terror, like that of the animal who at the same moment barks at, and runs away from, every unknown object.
At least that temper of mind will give us calm; faith, patience, hope, charity, though the heavens and the earth are shaken around us. For we have received a kingdom which cannot be moved, and in the King thereof we have the most perfect trust: for us He stooped to earth, was born, and died on the cross; and can we not trust Him? Let Him do what He will; let Him teach us what He will; let Him lead us whither He will. Wherever He leads, we shall find pasture. Wherever He leads, must be the way of truth, and we will follow, and say, as Socrates of old used to say, Let us follow the Logos boldly, whithersoever it leadeth. If Socrates had courage to say it, how much more should we, who know what he, good man, knew not, that the Logos is not a mere argument, train of thought, necessity of logic, but a Person--perfect God and perfect man, even Jesus Christ, 'the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever,' who promised of old, and therefore promises to us, and our children after us, to lead those who trust Him into all truth.