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Bunyan Characters Second Series: 4. ATHEIST

By Alexander Whyte


      " . . . without God [literally, atheists] in the world."--Paul.

      "Yonder is a man with his back toward Zion, and he is coming to meet us. So he drew nearer and nearer, and at last came up to them. His name was Atheist, and he asked them whither they were going? We are going to the Mount Zion, they answered. Then Atheist fell into a very great laughter. What is the meaning of your laughter? they asked. I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are to take upon you so tedious a journey, and yet are like to have nothing but your travel for your pains. Why, man? Do you think we shall not be received? they said. Received! There is no such place as you dream of in all this world. But there is in the world to come, replied Christian. When I was at home, Atheist went on, in mine own country I heard as you now affirm, and, from that hearing, I went out to see, and have been seeking this city you speak of this twenty years, but find no more of it than I did the first day I set out. And, still laughing, he went his way."

      Having begun to tell us about Atheist, why did Bunyan not tell us more? We would have thanked him warmly to-night for a little more about this unhappy man. Why did the dreamer not take another eight or ten pages in order to tell us, as only he could have told us, how this man that is now Atheist had spent his past twenty years seeking Mount Zion? Those precious unwritten pages are now buried in John Strudwick's vault in Bunhill Fields, and no other man has arisen able to handle Bunyan's biographic pen. Had Bunyan but put off the entrance of Christian and Hopeful into the city till he had told us something more about the twenty years it had taken this once earnest pilgrim to become an atheist, how valuable an interpolation that would have been! What was it that made this man to set out so long ago for the Celestial City? What was it that so stoutly determined him to leave off all his old companions and turn his back on the sweet refreshments of his youth? How did he do at the Slough of Despond? Did he come that way? What about the Wicket Gate, and the House Beautiful, and the Interpreter's House, and the Delectable Mountains? What men, and especially what women, did he meet and converse with on his way? What were his fortunes, and what his misfortunes? How much did he lay out at Vanity Fair, and on what? At what point of his twenty years' way did his youthful faith begin to shake, and his youthful love begin to become lukewarm? And what was it that at last made him quite turn round his back on Zion and his face to his own country? I cannot forgive Bunyan to-night for not telling us the story of Atheist's conversion, his pilgrimage, and his apostasy in full.

      At the same time, though it cannot be denied that Bunyan has lost at this point a great opportunity for his genius and for our advantage,--at the same time, he undoubtedly did a very courageous thing in introducing Atheist at all; and, especially, in introducing him to us and making him laugh so loudly at us when we are on the very borders of the land of Beulah. A less courageous writer, and a writer less sure of his ground, would have left out Atheist altogether; or, if he had felt constrained to introduce him, would have introduced him at any other period of our history rather than at this period. Under other hands than Bunyan's we would have met with this mocking reprobate just outside the City of Destruction; or, perhaps, among the booths of Vanity Fair; or, indeed, anywhere but where we now meet him. And, that our greater-minded author does not let loose the laughter of Atheist upon us till we are almost out of the body is a stroke of skill and truth and boldness that makes us glad indeed that we possess such a sketch at Bunyan's hand at all, all too abrupt and all too short as that sketch is. In the absence, then, of a full-length and finished portrait of Atheist, we must be content to fall back on some of the reflections and lessons that the mere mention of his name, the spot he passes us on, and the ridicule of his laughter, all taken together, awaken in our minds. One rapid stroke of such a brush as that of John Bunyan conveys more to us than a full-length likeness, with all the strongest colours, of any other artist would be able to do.

      1. One thing the life-long admiration of John Bunyan's books has helped to kindle and burn into my mind and my imagination is this: What a universe of things is the heart of man! Were there nothing else in the heart of man but all the places and all the persons and all the adventures that John Bunyan saw in his sleep, what a world that would open up in all our bosoms! All the pilgrims, good and bad--they, or the seed and possibility of them all, are all in your heart and in mine. All the cities, all the roads that lead from one city to another, with all the paths and all the by-paths,--all the adventures, experiences, endurances, conflicts, overthrows, victories,--all are within us and never are to be seen anywhere else. Heaven and hell, God and the devil, life and death, salvation and damnation, time and eternity, all are within us. "There is no Mount Zion in all this world," bellowed out this blinded fool. "No; I know that quite well," quickly responded Christian; "but there is in the world to come." He would have said the whole truth, and he would have been entirely right, had he taken time to add, "and in the world within." "And more," he should have said to Atheist, "much more in the world within than in any possible world to come." The Celestial City, every Sabbath-school child begins gradually to understand, is not up among the stars; till, as he grows older, he takes in the whole of the New Testament truth that the kingdom of heaven is wholly within him. You all understand, my brethren, that were we swept in a moment up to the furthest star, by all that infinite flight we would not be one hair's-breadth nearer the heavenly city. That is not the right direction to that city. The city whose builder and maker is God lies in quite a different direction from that altogether; not by ascending up beyond sun and moon and stars to all eternity would we ever get one hand's-breadth nearer God. But if you deny yourself sleep to-night till you have read His book and bowed your knees in His closet; if, for His sake, you deny yourself to-morrow when you are eating and drinking; as often as you say, "Not my will, but Thine be done"; as often as you humble yourself when others exalt themselves; as often as you refuse praise and despise blame for His sake; as often as you forgive before God your enemy, and rejoice with your friend,--Behold! the kingdom of heaven, with its King and all His shining court of angels and saints is around you;--is, indeed, within you. No; there is no such place. Heaven is not in any place: heaven is in a person where it is at all; and you are that person as often as you put off an earthly and put on a heavenly mind. That mocking reprobate, with his secret heart all through those twenty years hungering after the lusts of his youth,--he was wholly right in what he so unintentionally said; there is no such place in all this world. And, even if there were, it would spue him and all who are like him out of its mouth.

      2. And, then, in all that universe of things that fills that bottomless pit and shoreless sea the human heart, there is nothing deeper down in it than just its deep and unsearchable atheism. The very deepest thing, and the most absolutely inexpugnable thing, in every human heart is its theism; its original and inextinguishable convictions about itself and about God. But, all but as deep as that--for all around that, and all over that, and soaking all through that--there lies a superincumbent mass of sullen, brutish, malignant atheism. Nay, so deep down is the atheism of all our hearts, that it is only one here and another there of the holiest and the ripest of God's saints who ever get down to it, or even get at their deepest within sight of it. Robert Fleming tells us about Robert Bruce, that he was a man that had much inward exercise about his own personal case, and had been often assaulted anent that great foundation truth, if there was a God. And often, when he had come up to the pulpit, after being some time silent, which was his usual way, he would say, "I think it is a great matter to believe there is a God"; telling the people that it was another thing to believe that than they judged. But it was also known to his friends what extraordinary confirmations he had from the Lord therein, and what near familiarity he did attain to in his heart-converse with God: Yea, truly, adds Fleming, some things I have had thereanent that seem so strange and marvellous that I forbear to set them down. And in Halyburton's priceless Memoirs we read: "Hereby I was brought into a doubt about the truths of religion, the being of God, and things eternal. Whenever I was in dangers or straits and would build upon these things, a suspicion secretly haunted me, what if the things are not? This perplexity was somewhat eased while one day I was reading how Robert Bruce was shaken about the being of God, and how at length he came to the fullest satisfaction." And in another place: "Some days ago reading Ex. ix. and x., and finding this, 'That ye may know that I am God' frequently repeated, and elsewhere in passages innumerable, as the end of God's manifesting Himself in His word and works; I observe from it that atheism is deeply rooted even in the Lord's people, seeing they need to be taught this so much. The great difficulty that the whole of revelation has to grapple with is atheism; its whole struggle is to recover man to his first impressions of a God. This one point comprehends the whole of man's recovery, just as atheism is the whole of man's apostasy." And, again, in another part of the same great book, Halyburton says: "I must observe, also, the wise providence of God, that the greatest difficulties that lie against religion are hid from atheists. All the objections I meet with in their writings are not nearly so subtle as those which are often suggested to myself. The reason of this is obvious from the very nature of the thing--such persons take not a near-hand view of religion, and while persons stand at a distance neither are the advantages nor the difficulties of religion discerned." And now listen to Bunyan, that arch-atheist: "Whole floods of blasphemies both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. Against the very being of God and of His only beloved Son; or, whether there were, in truth, a God and a Christ, or no. Of all the temptations that ever I met with in my life, to question the being of God and the truth of the Gospel is the worst, and the worst to be borne. When this temptation comes it takes away my girdle from me, and removeth the foundation from under me."

      "Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write."

      And John Bunyan looked into his own deep and holy heart, and out of it he composed this incident of Atheist.

      3. It may not be out of place at this point to look for a moment at some of the things that agitate, stir up, and make the secret atheism of our hearts to fluctuate and overflow. Butler has a fine passage in which he points out that it is only the higher class of minds that are tempted with speculative difficulties such as those were that assaulted Christian and Hopeful after they were so near the end of their journey. Coarse, commonplace, and mean-minded men have their probation appointed them among coarse, mean, and commonplace things; whereas enlightened, enlarged, and elevated men are exercised after the manner of Robert Bruce, Thomas Halyburton, John Bunyan, and Butler himself. "The chief temptations of the generality of the world are the ordinary motives to injustice or unrestrained pleasure; but there are other persons without this shallowness of temper; persons of a deeper sense as to what is invisible and future. Now, these persons have their moral discipline set them in that high region." The profound bishop means that while their appetites and their tempers are the stumbling-stones of the most of men, the difficult problems of natural and revealed and experimental religion are the test and the triumph of other men. As we have just seen in the men mentioned above. Students, whose temptations lie fully as much in their intellects as in their senses, should buy (for a few pence) Halyburton's Memoirs. "With Halyburton," says Dr. John Duncan, "I feel great intellectual congruity. Halyburton was naturally a sceptic, but God gave that sceptic great faith."

      Then again, what Atheist calls the "tediousness" of the journey has undoubtedly a great hand in making some half-in-earnest men sceptics, if not scoffers. Many of us here to-night who can never now take this miserable man's way out of the tedium of the Christian life, yet most bitterly feel it. Whether that tedium is inherent in that life, and inevitable to such men as we are who are attempting that life; how far that feature belongs to the very essence of the pilgrim life, and how far we import our own tedium into the pilgrimage; the fact remains as Atheist puts it. As Atheist in this book says, so the Atheist who is in our hearts often says: We are like to have nothing for all our pains but a lifetime of tedious travel. Yes, wherever the blame lies, there can be no doubt about it, that what this hilarious scoffer calls the tediousness of the way is but a too common experience among many of those who, tediousness and all, will still cleave fast to it and will never leave it.

      Then, again, great trials in life, great straits, dark and too-long-continued providences, prayer unanswered, or not yet answered in the way we dictate, bad men and bad causes growing like a green bay tree, and good men and good work languishing and dying; these things, and many more things such as these, of which this world of faith and patience is full, prove quite too much for some men till they give themselves up to a state of mind that is nothing better than atheism. "My evidences and my certainty," says Halyburton, "were not answerable to the weight I was compelled to lay upon them." A figure which Goodwin in his own tender and graphic way takes up thus: "Set pins in a wall and fix them in ever so loosely, yet, if you hang nothing upon them they will seem to stand firm; but hang a heavy weight upon them, or even give them the least jog as you pass, and the whole thing will suddenly come down. The wall is God's word, the slack pin is our faith, and the weight and the jog are the heavy burdens and the sudden shocks of life, and down our hearts go, wall and pin and suspended vessel and all."

      When the church and her ministers, when the Scriptures and their anomalies, and when the faults and failings of Christian men are made the subject of mockery and laughter, the reverence, the fear, the awe, the respect that all enter so largely into religion, and especially into the religion of young people, is too easily destroyed; and not seldom the first seeds of practical and sometimes of speculative atheism are thus sown. The mischief that has been done by mockery and laughter to the souls, especially of the young and the inexperienced, only the great day will fully disclose.

      And then, two men of great weight and authority with us, tell us what we who are ministers would have found out without them: this, namely, that the greatest atheists are they who are ever handling holy things without feeling them.

      "Is it true," said Christian to Hopeful, his fellow, "is it true what this man hath said?" "Take heed," said Hopeful, "remember what it hath cost us already for hearkening to such kind of fellows. What! No Mount Zion! Did we not see from the Delectable Mountains the gate of the City? And, besides, are we not to walk by faith? Let us go on lest the man with the whip overtakes us again." Christian: "My brother, I said that but to prove thee, and to fetch from thee a fruit of the honesty of thy heart." Many a deep and powerful passage has Butler composed on that thesis which Hopeful here supplies him with; and many a brilliant sermon has Newman preached on that same text till he has made our "predispositions to faith" a fruitful and an ever fresh commonplace to hundreds of preachers. Yes; the best bulwark of faith is a good and honest heart. To such a happy heart the truth is its own unshaken evidence. To whom can we go but to Thee?--they who have such a heart protest. The whole bent of such men's minds is toward the truth of the gospel. Their instincts keep them on the right way even when their reason and their observation are both confounded. As Newman keeps on saying, they are "easy of belief." They cannot keep away from Christ and His church. They cannot turn back. They must go on. Though He slay them they will die yearning after Him. They often fall into great error and into great guilt, but their seed remaineth in them, and they cannot continue in error or in guilt, because they are born of God. They are they in whom

      "Persuasion and belief
      Have ripened into faith; and faith become
      A passionate intuition."

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

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See Also:
   1. IGNORANCE
   2. LITTLE-FAITH
   3. THE FLATTERER
   4. ATHEIST
   5. HOPEFUL
   6. TEMPORARY
   7. SECRET
   8. MRS. TIMOROUS
   9. MERCY
   10. MR. BRISK
   11. MR. SKILL
   12. THE SHEPHERD BOY
   13. OLD HONEST
   14. MR. FEARING
   15. FEEBLE-MIND
   16. GREAT-HEART
   17. MR. READY-TO-HALT
   18. VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH
   19. STANDFAST
   20. MADAM BUBBLE
   21. GAIUS
   22. CHRISTIAN
   23. CHRISTIANA
   24. THE ENCHANTED GROUND
   25. THE LAND OF BEULAH
   26. THE SWELLING OF JORDAN

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