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Sermons to the Natural Man, 1 - THE FUTURE STATE A SELF-CONSCIOUS STATE - part 1

By William G.T. Shedd


      1 Cor. xiii. 12.--"Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

      The apostle Paul made this remark with reference to the blessedness of the Christian in eternity. Such assertions are frequent in the Scriptures. This same apostle, whose soul was so constantly dilated with the expectation of the beatific vision, assures the Corinthians, in another passage in this epistle, that "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." The beloved disciple John, also, though he seems to have lived in the spiritual world while he was upon the earth, and though the glories of eternity were made to pass before him in the visions of Patmos, is compelled to say of the sons of God, "It doth not yet appear what we shall be." And certainly the common Christian, as he looks forward with a mixture of hope and anxiety to his final state in eternity, will confess that he knows but "in part," and that a very small part, concerning it. He endures as seeing that which is invisible, and cherishes the hope that through Christ's redemption his eternity will be a condition of peace and purity, and that he shall know even as also he is known.

      But it is not the Christian alone who is to enter eternity, and to whom the exchange of worlds will bring a luminous apprehension of many things that have hitherto been seen only through a glass darkly. Every human creature may say, when he thinks of the alteration that will come over his views of religious subjects upon entering another life, "Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. I am now in the midst of the vapors and smoke of this dim spot which men call earth, but then shall I stand in the dazzling light of the face of God, and labor under no doubt or delusion respecting my own character or that of my Eternal Judge."

      A moment's reflection will convince any one, that the article and fact of death must of itself make a vast accession to the amount of a man's knowledge, because death introduces him into an entirely new state of existence. Foreign travel adds much to our stock of ideas, because we go into regions of the earth of which we had previously known only by the hearing of the ear. But the great and last journey that man takes carries him over into a province of which no book, not even the Bible itself, gives him any distinct cognition, as to the style of its scenery or the texture of its objects. In respect to any earthly scene or experience, all men stand upon substantially the same level of information, because they all have substantially the same data for forming an estimate. Though I may never have been in Italy, I yet know that the soil of Italy is a part of the common crust of the globe, that the Apennines are like other mountains which I have seen, that the Italian sunlight pours through the pupil like any other sunlight, and that the Italian breezes fan the brow like those of the sunny south the world over. I understand that the general forms of human consciousness in Europe and Asia, are like those in America. The operations of the five senses are the same in the Old World that they are in the New. But what do I know of the surroundings and experience of a man who has travelled from time into eternity? Am I not completely baffled, the moment I attempt to construct the consciousness of the unearthly state? I have no materials out of which to build it, because it is not a world of sense and matter, like that which I now inhabit.

      But death carries man over into the new and entirely different mode of existence, so that he knows by direct observation and immediate intuition. A flood of new information pours in upon the disembodied spirit, such as he cannot by any possibility acquire upon earth, and yet such as he cannot by any possibility escape from in his new residence. How strange it is, that the young child, the infant of days, in the heart of Africa, by merely dying, by merely passing from time into eternity, acquires a kind and grade of knowledge that is absolutely inaccessible to the wisest and subtlest philosopher while here on earth![1] The dead Hottentot knows more than the living Plato.

      But not only does the exchange of worlds make a vast addition to our stores of information respecting the nature of the invisible realm, and the mode of existence there, it also makes a vast addition to the kind and degree of our knowledge respecting 'ourselves', and our personal relationships to God. This is by far the most important part of the new acquisition which we gain by the passage from time to eternity, and it is to this that the Apostle directs attention in the text. It is not so much the world that will be around us, when we are beyond the tomb, as it is the world that will be within us, that is of chief importance. Our circumstances in this mode of existence, and in any mode of existence, are arranged by a Power above us, and are, comparatively, matters of small concern; but the persons that we ourselves verily are, the characters which we bring into this environment, the little inner world of thought and feeling which is to be inclosed and overarched in the great outer world of forms and objects,--all this is matter of infinite moment and anxiety to a responsible creature.

      For the text teaches, that inasmuch as the future life is the 'ultimate' state of being for an immortal spirit, all that imperfection and deficiency in knowledge which appertains to this present life, this "ignorant present" time, must disappear. When we are in eternity, we shall not be in the dark and in doubt respecting certain great questions and truths that sometimes raise a query in our minds here. Voltaire now knows whether there is a sin-hating God, and David Hume now knows whether there is an endless hell. I may, in certain moods of my mind here upon earth, query whether I am accountable and liable to retribution, but the instant I shall pass from this realm of shadows, all this skepticism will be banished forever from my mind. For the future state is the 'final' state, and hence all questions are settled, and all doubts are resolved. While upon earth, the arrangements are such that we cannot see every thing, and must walk by faith, because it is a state of probation; but when once in eternity, all the arrangements are such that we cannot but see every thing, and must walk by sight, because it is the state of adjudication. Hence it is, that the preacher is continually urging men to view things, so far as is possible, in the light of eternity, as the only light that shines clearly and without refractions. Hence it is, that he importunes his hearers to estimate their duties, and their relationships, and their personal character, as they will upon the death-bed, because in the solemn hour of death the light of the future state begins to dawn upon the human soul.

      It is very plain that if a spiritual man like the apostle Paul, who in a very remarkable degree lived with reference to the future world, and contemplated subjects in the light of eternity, was compelled to say that he knew but "in part," much more must the thoughtless natural man confess his ignorance of that which will meet him when his spirit returns to God. The great mass of mankind are totally vacant of any just apprehension of what will be their state of mind, upon being introduced into God's presence. They have never seriously considered what must be the effect upon their views and feelings, of an entire withdrawment from the scenes and objects of earth, and an entrance into those of the future state. Most men are wholly engrossed in the present existence, and do not allow their thoughts to reach over into that invisible region which revelation discloses, and which the uncontrollable workings of conscience sometimes 'force' upon their attention for a moment. How many men there are, whose sinful and thoughtless lives prove that they are not aware that the future world will, by its very characteristics, fill them with a species and a grade of information that will be misery unutterable. Is it not the duty and the wisdom of all such, to attempt to conjecture and anticipate the coming experience of the human soul in the day of judgment and the future life, in order that by repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ they may be able to stand in that day? Let us then endeavor to know, at least "in part," concerning the eternal state.

      The latter clause of the text specifies the general characteristic of existence in the future world. It is a mode of existence in which the rational mind "'knows' even as it is known." It is a world of knowledge,--of conscious knowledge. In thus unequivocally asserting that our existence beyond the tomb is one of distinct consciousness, revelation has taught us what we most desire and need to know. The first question that would be raised by a creature who was just to be launched out upon an untried mode of existence would be the question: "Shall I be 'conscious'?" However much he might desire to know the length and breadth of the ocean upon which his was to set sail, the scenery that was to be above him and around him in his coming history,--nay, however much he might wish to know of matters still closer to himself than these; however much he might crave to ask of his Maker, "With what body shall I come?" all would be set second to the simple single inquiry: "Shall I think, shall I feel, shall I know?" In answering this question in the affirmative, without any hesitation or ambiguity, the apostle Paul has in reality cleared up most of the darkness that overhangs the future state. The structure of the spiritual body, and the fabric of the immaterial world, are matters of secondary importance, and may be left without explanation, provided only the rational mind of man be distinctly informed that it shall not sleep in unconsciousness, and that the immortal spark shall not become such stuff as dreams are made of.

      The future, then, is a mode of existence in which the soul "knows even as it is known." But this involves a perception in which there is no error, and no intermission. For, the human spirit in eternity "is known" by the omniscient God. If, then, it knows in the style and manner that God knows, there can be no misconception or cessation in its cognition. Here, then, we have a glimpse into the nature of our eternal existence. It is a state of distinct and unceasing knowledge of moral truth and moral objects. The human spirit, be it holy or sinful, a friend or an enemy of God, in eternity will always and forever be aware of it. There is no forgetting in the future state; there is no dissipation of the mind there; and there is no aversion of the mind from itself. The cognition is a fixed quantity. Given the soul, and the knowledge is given. If it be holy, it is always conscious of the fact. If it be sinful, it cannot for an instant lose the distressing consciousness of sin. In neither instance will it be necessary, as it generally is in this life, to make a special effort and a particular examination, in order to know the personal character. Knowledge of God and His law, in the future life, is spontaneous and inevitable; no creature can escape it; and therefore the bliss is 'unceasing' in heaven, and the misery is 'unceasing' in hell. There are no states of thoughtlessness and unconcern in the future life, because there is not an instant of forgetfulness or ignorance of the personal character and condition. In the world beyond this, every man will constantly and distinctly know what he is, and what he is not, because he will "be known" by the omniscient and unerring God, and will himself know in the same constant and distinct style and manner.

      If the most thoughtless person that now walks the globe could only have a clear perception of that kind of knowledge which is awaiting him upon the other side of the tomb, he would become the most thoughtful and the most anxious of men. It would sober him like death itself. And if any unpardoned man should from this moment onward be haunted with the thought, "When I die I shall enter into the light of God's countenance, and obtain a knowledge of my own character and obligations that will be as accurate and unvarying as that of God himself upon this subject," he would find no rest until he had obtained an assurance of the Divine mercy, and such an inward change as would enable him to endure this deep and full consciousness of the purity of God and of the state of his heart. It is only because a man is unthinking, or because he imagines that the future world will be like the present one, only longer in duration, that he is so indifferent regarding it. Here is the difficulty of the case, and the fatal mistake which the natural man makes. He supposes that the views which he shall have upon religious subjects in the eternal state, will be very much as they are in this,--vague, indistinct, fluctuating, and therefore causing no very great anxiety. He can pass days and weeks here in time without thinking of the claims of God upon him, and he imagines that the same thing is possible in eternity. While here upon earth, he certainly does not "know even as also he is known," and he hastily concludes that so it will be beyond the grave. It is because men imagine that eternity is only a very long space of 'time', filled up, as time here is, with dim, indistinct apprehensions, with a constantly shifting experience, with shallow feelings and ever diversified emotions, in fine, with all the 'variety' of pleasure and pain, of ignorance and knowledge, that pertains to this imperfect and probationary life,--it is because mankind thus conceive of the final state, that it exerts no more influence over them. But such is not its true idea. There is a marked difference between the present and the future life, in respect to uniformity and clearness of knowledge. "Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known." The text and the whole teaching of the New Testament prove that the invisible world is the unchangeable one; that there are no alterations of character, and consequently no alternations of experience, in the future life; that there are no transitions, as there are in this checkered scene of earth, from happiness to unhappiness and back again. There is but one uniform type of experience for an individual soul in eternity. That soul is either uninterruptedly happy, or uninterruptedly miserable, because it has either an uninterrupted sense of holiness, or an uninterrupted sense of sin. He that is righteous is righteous still, and knows it continually; and he that is filthy is filthy still, and knows it incessantly. If we enter eternity as the redeemed of the Lord, we take over the holy heart and spiritual affections of regeneration, and there is no change but that of progression,--a change, consequently, only in degree, but none of kind or type. The same knowledge and experience that we have here "in part" we shall have there in completeness and permanency. And the same will be true, if the heart be evil and the affections inordinate and earthly. And all this, simply because the mind's knowledge is clear, accurate, and constant. That which the transgressor knows here of God and his own heart, but imperfectly, and fitfully, and briefly, he shall know there perfectly, and constantly, and everlastingly. The law of constant evolution, and the characteristic of unvarying uniformity, will determine and fix the type of experience in the evil as it does in the good.

      Such, then, is the general nature of knowledge in the future state. It is distinct, accurate, unintermittent, and unvarying. We shall know even as we are known, and we are known by the omniscient and unerring Searcher of hearts. Let us now apply this general characteristic of cognition in eternity to some particulars. Let us transfer our minds into the future and final state, and mark what goes on within them there. We ought often to enter this mysterious realm, and become habituated to its mental processes, and by a wise anticipation become prepared for the reality itself.

      I. The human mind, in eternity, will have a distinct and unvarying perception of the 'character of God'. And that one particular attribute in this character, respecting which the cognition will be of the most luminous quality, is the Divine holiness. In eternity, the immaculateness of the Deity will penetrate the consciousness of every rational creature with the subtlety and the thoroughness of fire. God's essence is infinitely pure, and intensely antagonistic to sin, but it is not until there is a direct contact between it and the human mind, that man understands it and feels it. "I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee, and I abhor myself." Even the best of men know but "in part" concerning the holiness of God. Yet it is noticeable how the apprehension of it grows upon the ripening Christian, as he draws nearer to the time of his departure. The vision of the cherubim themselves seems to dawn upon the soul of a Leighton and an Edwards, and though it does not in the least disturb their saintly and seraphic peace, because they are sheltered in the clefts of the Rock of Ages, as the brightness passes by them, it does yet bring out from their comparatively holy and spiritual hearts the utterance, "Behold I am vile; infinite upon, infinite is my sin." But what shall be said of the common and ordinary knowledge of mankind, upon this subject! Except at certain infrequent times, the natural man does not know even "in part," respecting the holiness of God, and hence goes on in transgression without anxiety or terror. It is the very first work of prevenient grace, to disclose to the human mind something of the Divine purity; and whoever, at any moment, is startled by a more than common sense of God's holy character, should regard it and cherish it as a token of benevolence and care for his soul.

      Now, in eternity this species of knowledge must exist in the very highest degree. The human soul will be encircled by the character and attributes of God. It cannot look in any direction without beholding it. It is not so here. Here, in this life, man may and does avert his eye, and refuse to look at the sheen and the splendor that pains his organ. He fastens his glance upon the farm, or the merchandise, or the book, and perseveringly determines not to see the purity of God that rebukes him. And 'here' he can succeed. He can and does live days and months without so much as a momentary glimpse of his Maker, and, as the apostle says, is "without God" in this world. And yet such men do have, now and then, a view of the face of God. It may be for an instant only. It may be merely a thought, a gleam, a flash; and yet, like that quick flash of lightning, of which our Lord speaks, that lighteneth out of the one part of heaven, and shineth unto the other part, that cometh out of the East and shineth even unto the West,--like that swift momentary flash which runs round the whole horizon in the twinkling of an eye, this swift thought and gleam of God's purity fills the whole guilty soul full of light. What spiritual distress seizes the man in such moments, and of what a penetrating perception of the Divine character is he possessed for an instant! It is a distinct and an accurate knowledge, but, unlike the cognition of the future state, it is not yet an inevitable and unintermittent one. He can expel it, and become again an ignorant and indifferent being, as he was before. He knows but "in part" at the very best, and this only temporarily.

      But carry this rational and accountable creature into eternity, denude him of the body of sense, and take him out of the busy and noisy world of sense into the silent world of spirits, and into the immediate presence of God, and then he will know upon this subject even as he is known. That sight and perception of God's purity which he had here for a brief instant, and which was so painful because he was not in sympathy with it, has now become everlasting. That distinct and accurate knowledge of God's character has now become his only knowledge. That flash of lightning has become light,--fixed, steady, permanent as the orb of day. The rational spirit cannot for an instant rid itself of the idea of God. Never for a moment, in the endless cycles, can it look away from its Maker; for in His presence what other object is there to look at? Time itself, with its pursuits and its objects of thought and feeling, is no longer, for the angel hath sworn it by Him who liveth for ever and ever. There is nothing left, then, to occupy and engross the attention but the character and attributes of God; and, now, the immortal mind, created for such a purpose, must yield itself up to that contemplation which in this life it dreaded and avoided. The future state of every man is to be an open and unavoidable vision of God. If he delights in the view, he will be blessed; if he loathes it, he will be miserable. This is the substance of heaven and hell. This is the key to the eternal destiny of every human soul. If a man love God, he shall gaze at him and adore; if he hate God, he shall gaze at him and gnaw his tongue for pain.

      The subject, as thus far unfolded, teaches the following lessons:

      1. In the first place, it shows that 'a false theory of the future state will not protect a man from future misery'. For, we have seen that the eternal world, by its very structure and influences, throws a flood of light upon the Divine character, causing it to appear in its ineffable purity and splendor, and compels every creature to stand out in that light. There is no darkness in which man can hide himself, when he leaves this world of shadows. A false theory, therefore, respecting God, can no more protect a man from the reality, the actual matter of fact, than a false theory of gravitation will preserve a man from falling from a precipice into a bottomless abyss. Do you come to us with the theory that every human creature will be happy in another life, and that the doctrine of future misery is false? We tell you, in reply, that God is 'holy', beyond dispute or controversy; that He cannot endure the sight of sin; and that in the future world every one of His creatures must see Him precisely as He is, and know Him in the real and eternal qualities of His nature. The man, therefore, who is full of sin, whose heart is earthly, sensual, selfish, must, when he approaches that pure Presence, find that his theory of future happiness shrivels up like the heavens themselves, before the majesty and glory of God. He now stands face to face with a Being whose character has never dawned upon him with such a dazzling purity, and to dispute the reality would be like disputing the fierce splendor of the noonday sun. Theory must give way to fact, and the deluded mortal must submit to its awful force.

      In this lies the 'irresistible' power of death, judgment, and eternity, to alter the views of men. Up to these points they can dispute and argue, because there is no ocular demonstration. It is possible to debate the question this side of the tomb, because we are none of us face to face with God, and front to front with eternity. In the days of Noah, before the flood came, there was skepticism, and many theories concerning the threatened deluge. So long as the sky was clear, and the green earth smiled under the warm sunlight, it was not difficult for the unbeliever to maintain an argument in opposition to the preacher of righteousness. But when the sky was rent with lightnings, and the earth was scarred with thunder-bolts, and the fountains of the great deep were broken up, where was the skepticism? where were the theories? where were the arguments? When God teaches, "Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world?" They then knew as they were known; they stood face to face with the facts.

      It is this 'inevitableness' of the demonstration upon which we would fasten attention. We are not always to live in this world of shadows. We are going individually into the very face and eyes of Jehovah, and whatever notions we may have adopted and maintained must all disappear, except as they shall be actually verified by what we shall see and know in that period of our existence when we shall perceive with the accuracy and clearness of God Himself. Our most darling theories, by which we may have sought to solace our souls in reference to our future destiny, if false, will be all ruthlessly torn away, and we must see what verily and eternally is. All mankind come upon one doctrinal platform when they enter eternity. They all have one creed there. There is not a skeptic even in hell. The devils believe and tremble. The demonstration that God is holy is so irrefragable, so complete and absolute, that doubt or denial is impossible in any spirit that has passed the line between time and eternity.

      2. In the second place, this subject shows that 'indifference and carelessness respecting the future life will not protect the soul from future misery'. There may be no false theory adopted, and yet if there be no thoughtful preparation to meet God, the result will be all the same. I may not dispute the Newtonian theory of gravitation, yet if I pay no heed to it, if I simply forget it, as I clamber up mountains, and walk by the side of precipices, my body will as surely be dashed to pieces as if I were a theoretical skeptic upon the subject of gravitation.

      The creature's indifference can no more alter the immutable nature of God, than can the creature's false reasoning, or false theorizing. That which is settled in heaven, that which is fixed and eternal, stands the same stern, relentless fact under all circumstances. We see the operation of this sometimes here upon earth, in a very impressive manner. A youth or a man simply neglects the laws and conditions of physical well-being. He does not dispute them. He merely pays no attention to them. A. few years pass by, and disease and torturing pain become his portion. He comes now into the awful presence of the powers and the facts which the Creator has inlaid in the world, of physical existence. He knows now even as he is known. And the laws are stern. He finds no place of repentance in them, though he seek it carefully with tears. The laws never repent, never change their mind. The principles of physical life and growth which he has never disputed, but which he has never regarded, now crush him into the ground in their relentless march and motion.

      Precisely so will it be in the moral world, and with reference to the holiness of God. That man who simply neglects to prepare himself to see a holy God, though he never denies that there is such a Being, will find the vision just as unendurable to him, as it is to the most determined of earthly skeptics. So far as the final result in the other world is concerned, it matters little whether a man adds unbelief to his carelessness, or not. The carelessness will ruin his soul, whether with or without skepticism. Orthodoxy is valuable only as it inspires the hope that it will end in timely and practical attention to the concerns of the soul. But if you show me a man who you infallibly know will go through life careless and indifferent, I will show you a man who will not be prepared to meet God face to face, even though his theology be as accurate as that of St. Paul himself. Nay, we have seen that there is a time coming when all skeptics will become believers like the devils themselves, and will tremble at the ocular demonstration of truths which they have heretofore denied. Theoretical unbelief must be a temporary affair in every man; for it can last only until he dies. Death will make all the world theoretically orthodox, and bring them all to one and the same creed. But death will not bring them all to one and the same happy experience of the truth, and lave of the creed. For those who have made preparation for the vision of God and the ocular demonstration of Divine truth, these will rise upon their view with a blessed and glorious light. But for those who have remained sinful and careless, these eternal truths and facts will be a vision of terror and despair. They will not alter. No man will find any place of repentance in them, though, like Esau, he seek it carefully and with tears.

      3. In the third place, this subject shows that 'only faith in Christ and a new heart can protect the soul from future misery'. The nature and character of God cannot be altered, and therefore the change must be wrought in man's soul. The disposition and affections of the heart must be brought into such sweet sympathy and harmony with God's holiness, that when in the next world that holiness shall be revealed as it is to the seraphim, it will fall in upon the soul like the rays of a vernal sun, starting every thing into cheerful life and joy. If the Divine holiness does not make this impression, it produces exactly the contrary effect. If the sun's rays do not start the bud in the spring, they kill it. If the vision of a holy God is not our heaven, then it must be our hell. Look then directly into your heart, and tell us which is the impression for you. Can you say with David, "We give thanks and rejoice, at the remembrance of Thy holiness?" Are you glad that there is such a pure and immaculate Being upon the throne, and when His excellence abashes you, and rebukes your corruption and sin, do you say, "Let the righteous One smite me, it shall be a kindness?" Do you 'love' God's holy character? If so, you are a new creature, and are ready for the vision of God, face to face. For you, to know God even as you are known by Him will not be a terror, but a glory and a joy. You are in sympathy with Him. You have been reconciled to Him by the blood of atonement, and brought into harmony with Him by the washing of regeneration. For you, as a believer in Christ, and a new man in Christ Jesus, all is well. The more you see of God, the more you desire to see of Him; and the more you know of Him, the more you long to know.

      But if this is not your experience, then all is ill with you. We say 'experience'. You must 'feel' in this manner toward God, or you cannot endure the vision which is surely to break upon you after death. You must 'love' this holiness without which no man can see the Lord. You may approve of it, you may praise it in other men, but if there is no affectionate going out of your own heart toward, the holy God, you are not in right relations to Him. You have the carnal mind, and that is enmity, and enmity is misery.

      Look these facts in the eye, and act accordingly. "Make the 'tree' good, and his fruit good," says Christ. Begin at the beginning. Aim at nothing less than a change of disposition and affections. Ask for nothing less, seek for nothing less. If you become inwardly holy as God is holy; if you become a friend of God, reconciled to Him by the blood of Christ; then your nature will be like God's nature, your character like God's character. Then, when you shall know God even as you are known by Him, and shall see Him as He is, the knowledge and the vision will be everlasting joy.

      [Footnote 1:

      "She has seen the mystery hid,
      Under Egypt's pyramid;
      By those eyelids pale and close,
      Now she knows what Rhamses knows."
      ELIZABETH BROWNING: On the Death of a Child.]

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