How I Think of Immortality, by Edwin Markham

from Edwin Markham, How I Think of Immortality (reprinted by permission)


How I Think of Immortality

by Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
American poet, who wrote "
The Man with the Hoe"
"Lincoln, the Man of the People"

Does man survive the grave? Does he pass onward to some wonderful existence beyond the shadow of the valley? If he does, we ought to know something about it; for it is a beautiful thing to look ahead, to take the short step with the long look.

I believe that there are more revelations of life to come. I believe that God is the Divine Dramatist; that he has created a vast drama with many exits and many entrances; that this earth life is only one scene in the romance of the infinite.

Yet it looks to us as if the footsteps of the departed one die out forever at the grave. We see no footstep going beyond. But philosophers know that seemings are often deceptive. We see the star set; yet no star goes down but it climbs another sky.

So I believe that when the soul disappears from this world, it disappears only to become manifest upon another scene in the wondrous drama of eternity.

It is not incredible to me that we should survive death. The thing that is incredible is life itself.

Why should there be any life at all? Why should this world of stars ever have come into existence? Why should we be here in this sun-illumined universe? Why should there be green earth under our feet? Why should there be the whitening ocean?

All this revelation of grace and of grandeur, this is the incredible thing. Whence did it come, and what power sustains it through the long cycles of time? This mystery excites my astonishment, compels my conjecture, creates my reverence.

Life is incredible, yet we know that we are here in the midst of life. Some Ineffable Power has called us out of the unknown. And the Power that has called us into this revelation of wonder can easily have prepared for us another surprise beyond the abyss of death. I believe that this Higher Power has created a world for us beyond, a world of the spirit.

And there is a philosophy of spirit that supports this view. Saint Paul gives us the key to it in his great statement; "There are bodies natural, and there are bodies spiritual."

In other words, there are two kinds of substance in the universe. There is a natural or physical substance, and there is a spiritual substance.

We know something of material substance, for we are constantly in contact with material forms. But these forms are not living forms. They take on the appearance of life in plants and animals and men; but they take on this appearance only because there are living spiritual forms within them.

The flower is alive only because there is a spirit flower within it, a spirit flower that ascended out of the substance of the spiritual globe that exists, and always has existed, within this outer physical globe. The bird is alive and pulsing with joy only because there is a spirit bird within it.

A man is alive and meditates on the great mysteries only because there is a spirit man. Back of the human body there is a spiritual body, back of the physical brain there is a spiritual brain - something that is spirit, something that is vital substance, something that is deathless and divine.

In the light of this philosophy, all forces are spiritual forces. Material forces are nonexistent. The winds blow and the waves leap and thunder against the cliff, the thinker thinks - all as the result of spiritual forces, whose occult origin is in the spiritual world.

So we men and women are spirits now. Man does not become a spirit at death: the embryo of his spirit is bestowed upon him in the mother's womb. He comes into the world a soul, wearing the body, "this muddy vesture of decay," as a time-vesture, as a temporary envelope, which enables him to function for a while upon this lower nature plane.

What, then, is the soul?

The soul is an organism; it is an organism existing as the living form within the body. Hence every physical organ of a man has a spiritual organ within it, giving form and stability to the physical. So when this spirit form leaves the body at death, the body begins to crumble, because nothing is left to maintain the fabric of the frame. The soul is the form maker, the body builder: "the soul is form, and doth the body make."

Since the soul is the living substantial organism within my physical organism, I do not look at you with my physical eye, but through my physical eye: I do not feel with my physical hand, but through my physical hand; I do not think with my physical brain, but through my physical brain. The only thing that can see, can feel, can think, is the spiritual organism within the physical frame.

What was the ground of the old skeptics when they denied the survival of the soul? They said that the physical brain secretes thought somewhat as the liver secretes bile. Therefore, when the physical brain crumbles, the whole man crumbles. If there is nothing but a physical brain in us, the old skeptics would be right, because as soon as the physical brain melts away, there would be no thinker left. But if a man thinks with his spiritual brain, then death has no power to destroy the thinker.

Now, what happens to a man at death? The soul of the man, with only a brief delay, passes into the soul of the world. What I call the soul of the world is the spiritual world that is embedded and breathing as the living substance within the physical world Matter is only a mist; and back of this mist is the primal and undying world, the world of spiritual reality, the world that pulses and vibrates in all these thousands of physical forms. All this wonder we call nature is only the time-vesture of the eternal.

If nature is only a time-vesture, the body may also be looked upon as a time-vesture. The use of the body is to enable the soul to come into contact with the physical world, and thus absorb the knowledge that a man can acquire on this physical plane. The divine Master of the Universe wishes to give us many kinds of experience; so we have these material bodies in order that we may take part in this earthly scene in the long drama of existence. Each man is given a physical body somewhat as an actor is given a mask for his appointed role.

Wearing this mask of the body, we come into conscious contact only with the physical world. Our physical eyes, for example, project our spirit-sight only into the physical universe. Thus the spiritual world is temporarily shut away from our vision. This is the reason we do not see into the world of spirits that is pulsing all around us.

As soon as death clears away from the soul the mist of matter, we look at once into the next world with all its wonders. And it is a blessed thought that all the departing men and women are received by noble comrades, and are made to feel at home on the paths of the new existence.

And it is also blessed to know that a departing soul does not need a physical body; in the hereafter he will not need such a body any more than a hand needs a discarded glove. The spiritual body will be all-sufficient: it will be an electro-vital body, organic, evolving, imperishable.

We now see that the higher spiritual world is not, as Dante thought, in some remote expanse in the heavens. The spiritual world is here, here very near these earthly paths we travel - near us, but invisible to our eyes on this hither side of death. It is within our physical world just as a man's soul is within his body.

And at death, what happens? The spirit-man, after a brief waiting, rises out of the castoff husk of the body. This is the resurrection.

Where does the man go? He doesn't go anywhere; for he immediately finds himself in the spiritual world, finds himself mingling with his old friends, his old associates. Each man goes to his own kind, for spiritual affinities are universal, and are forever drawing us to our fates, to our fortunes.

Here is something to give us pause: each man goes to his own place. Each man joins those who are kindred to him in spiritual qualities. This is a terrifying fact: we go to those who are kindred to our souls. Only by being noble ourselves shall we ever come into permanent association with other noble comrades.

I am giving you my judgment based upon my study of the Bible and the great seers; also upon my knowledge of the logic of life. We will hereafter go to those who are kindred to our spirits, whether they be good or whether they be evil. Vast groups in the next world will gather together under the persistent urge of spiritual gravitation, of spiritual affinity.

This social law is the basis of the idea of hell and heaven - hell being the rallying ground of the loose thinkers and loose livers, that horde whose ruling love is the push of the self-life. Heaven is the rallying ground of those consecrated men and women who believe in love and justice, who believe in subordinating private interest to the public welfare, who believe in the services and generosities of the holy brotherhood. All men and women of this noble sort will inevitably gravitate toward one another, will seek to organize themselves into a society under the inspiration and leadership of the social Christ.

Thus we see that both hell and heaven are founded upon the logic of life. What happens here on earth gives a forecast of all that will happen hereafter.

It is my belief that the next world will do much to set wrongs and miseries of this world right. In that better country men will still be men, and women, women; and I feel sure that immense preparation has been made there for the amendment of all the lacks and losses of this earthly life.

Unquestionably, the next world will have lofty realms for all ascending and expanding souls. The horizon of knowledge will be widening forever.

Here on earth we are cramped, cabined, and confined. But in that better country that is ahead, teachers will include the wise men and women of all lands and of all ages. Socrates and Plato and Anaxagoras will be there with more than the wisdom of Greece; Dante and Savonarola and Mazzini will be there with more than the wisdom of Italy; Carlyle and Ruskin and Charles Kingsley will be there with more than the wisdom of England.

The next world, then, is not a floating phantasy. It is something as practical as wood chopping. There all upward-looking souls will enter into their real happiness, for they will enter into the joy of the holy brotherhood. Selfishness will be eliminated. This is the main practical purpose of  religion - to help us to eliminate selfishness and to make us ready for a divine society on earth and for a divine society in the heavens.

There, O friends, you will enter the path of an eternal progress. There will be a field for the manifestation of all your dreams.

If you are an artist, there you will practice your art; if you are a gardener, there you will practice your craft; if you are a scientist, there you will find ample field for exploration into the laws and processes of the universe; if you are a political leader with an honest heart, you will find opportunities for service in organizing higher expressions of brotherhood. In that better country will exist that nobler form of political wisdom where government becomes the organ of fraternity.

So it is a great hope that we have ahead - a social and industrial order quickened by the spirit of the Christ and based utterly on love, labor, and loyalty.

God is eternal youth. This is the reason why the earth sinks into winter, only to rise into the glory of a new spring; this is the reason why the universe, although snowed upon by the ages, remains forever young. And this is the reason why all souls who touch the vitalizing and valorous love-life of God round at last into youth again on the fragrant paths of the new existence.

What an inrush here of the high poetry of the heart, what a vision of the supernal beauty - this throwing off of the hard husk of time, and this return of earth's weary millions to the lost flower of their years!

Here are the suggestive words of a great seer:

"In heaven the angels are advancing continually to the springtime of their youth, so that the oldest angel appears the youngest.... To grow old in heaven is to grow young."

[The closing quotation is from Heaven and Hell 414.]

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