Death; Its Nature, Necessity and Cause.
The theme of the present chapter is one of the most momentous to human hope and happiness that man is called upon to investigate and decide. If death is the end of our individual and conscious being; if nothing remains but the ashes from the burnt taper, or a formless essence that soars away and mingles with the elements; if our glowing hopes, our lofty aspirations, our consciousness of capacities for knowledge and happiness which have just begun to expand, are all cut off by death, and buried in the grave - then, indeed, human beings are the greatest enigma in the universe. Compared with the possibilities of their nature, they are the fading flower, the withering grass, the morning cloud, the tale that is told.
But if death is only the completion of the first little round in life - the first short flight; if it marks the end only of our seed-time; if our budding hopes, our lofty aspirations, and dawning consciousness of desires which no earthly good can fill, are but the swelling germs of faculties that are to blossom and bear immortal fruit; if we leave in the grave only the swaddling-clothes of our spiritual infancy, and rise as from a sleep, in perfect human form, with all our memory, our consciousness of individual being, to enter upon an endless career, in which hope is changed into fruition, and aspiration into attainment; then death is the grand step in life. It solves all its enigmas; it is the fulfillment of which this life is but the prophecy; and to the wise and pure it opens the shining portals of an endless day.
The doctrines of the New Church teach us that death is this great step in life; that, from the beginning, it was a part of the Divine plan, according to which, man was to attain the highest possibilities of his nature; that it is necessary to the success of that plan; is orderly progress; is the natural side of the same event we call resurrection; and instead of shrinking from it as his direst enemy, he ought to regard it as his great deliverer and best friend.
I propose to give you some reasons for this belief, and as far as space and. ability will permit, to offer the testimony which the Lord Himself has given to its truth, in the two great revelations, recorded in His Word and created in His works. I invite your candid and earnest attention to this testimony. Lay aside, if you can, the prejudices of the past. Bring fresh and open minds to its consideration; weigh it in the balances of reason; measure it by the Divine methods written on everything around us, and judge it by your own conceptions of the ends which a being of infinite love and wisdom must seek in the creation of nature and man, and you can hardly fail to come to just conclusions.
In the first chapter of this work, I endeavored to show that there are distinct spiritual substances, and a real spiritual world; in the second chapter, I gave some reasons for the belief that people are essentially spiritual beings; that they are spirits in the human form, with a complete human organization, having spiritual senses adapted to spiritual objects, as their natural senses are adapted to natural objects; that the material body is no part of the person, but simply the sustaining basis and continent of those spiritual substances of which the person is formed - the instrument he or she uses to perfect their complete spiritual organization, and lay the foundation for the superstructure of their future life.
Let us keep the fact distinctly before us that the spirit is the person him or her self, and not some caput mortuum, some formless essence or unsubstantial ghost. For if we lose sight of the person or mistake some unessential part of him or her for the person him or herself, we lose sight of the subject of our thought, and we may reason and speculate forever, and come to no satisfactory conclusion, for we do not know what we are reasoning about; and we shall be like people who run, but know not whither, and who, consequently, will never find the end of their race. Let us not be cheated, then, by any jugglery of words or any illusion of the senses. Let us keep the eye of the mind steadily fixed upon the spirit as the man himself. What, then, is the death of man, according to the common meaning of the word death? I answer: It is the withdrawal of the person from the material body, casting the body aside, deserting it. And by this act the person steps out of this world into the spiritual world. By the simple act, no change is effected in the person him or her self, in form, organization, or character. They are no better and no worse; they know no more and no less; they have not lost or gained a single feature or faculty. They have only gained more favorable conditions for the attainment of their ends.
Nor is any change effected in the material body by the simple act of death. It has the same form, the same organization. Its nerves of sense and motion are all perfect; it possesses as much life as it ever did - that is, none at all. For all that the body ever had was the ability to respond to the life of the spirit. The simple act - the thing done - is the separation of two organic forms, which before had acted together as one. That form, in which life resided, still retains it; and that which was dependent upon the other for all its power, and even for the ability to resist the common forces of nature and retain its form, has lost it; and is as powerless to love, to think, to feel and act, as the substances which compose it were when they were metals, earth, and gases. It is true a great change soon commences in both forms. The material body having lost the special power which gave it organization, and enabled it to resist the common forces of nature, yields to their action, and returns' to its former state - becomes earth and gas, and mingles with the elements; while the man enters upon his new career, under new conditions, with corresponding results. Such is the change we call death. It is very small in itself, but most momentous in its results.
If we look at the body alone and mistake that for the person him or herself, as most persons practically do, the change is terrible. There lies the form we have loved, cold, motionless, dead. The red current of life that flowed through artery and vein, has become a standing pool; the nerves that gave sensation to the whole body and special ability to each organ to do its appropriate work, have lost their power; the light of thought and affection no longer beams upon us from the eye; the ear is deaf to our imploring cries; the smile of love has faded from the white lips, and no voice of recognition can ever move them more; the arm has lost its power and the fingers their cunning; the feet will run on no more errands of love and duty. And soon the very form disappears, mingles with the elements, and is lost. How terrible the fate, if that body was the person! How irreparable the loss if the friend, the child, the husband, the wife we loved, was that form! I do not wonder that those who have no idea of people as spiritual beings shrink from death with horror; that it is universally regarded as the great agony and terror, and that multitudes cling to the hope that these elements may be reorganized into the human form, and peopleís personal existence be restored to them.
But if we regard the spirit as the real person, there is no loss of being or form or consciousness; there is no death. The same heart beats with the same love as ever; the same eye is luminous with affection and kind thoughts; the same ear hears, not our outward cries, but the secret aspirations and yearnings of our souls; the same face beams with the same, or a more unselfish and ardent love, and the lips whisper it to our inward ear; the same arms are stronger to give us spiritual support, and the same hands minister to our real wants with greater efficiency and tenderer skill; and the whole life of those we have loved is nearer our life, and throbs in and through our inmost being with a stronger pulse than when the same form and the same life were separated from us by a wall of clay. We see them not. We never saw them. Only the mask they wore was visible to the natural senses. They have thrown off that, and when we throw off ours, we shall really see them and be seen, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: . . . then shall I know even as also I am known." Such is the apparent and such is the real change we call death.
Let us now endeavor to ascertain the true grounds and necessity for the decay and dispersion of the material body. Is death an accident in peoplesí lives? Was it sent upon them as a punishment for sin? Is its real cause due to disease or external injuries? Or, is it a necessity from the nature of matter, from the nature of spirit, and from the Divine purposes as far as we are able to discern them in the Divine character and methods of operation as they are manifested in the Lord's Word and works? It is important that we settle these questions if possible; for if we can be assured that the death of the material body is an orderly step in life, that it was contemplated in the creation of human beings, and is not an interruption of the Divine purposes, and a penalty for sin, it will do much to disrobe it of its terrors and to give us juster views of the comparative value of spiritual and natural things. Let us examine the question, then, on all sides; from the material, the spiritual, and the Divine.
We have no evidence that any material form can long retain its organization. Matter in itself is dead, passive, has no form of its own, and, by the action of general laws; constantly tends to its original chaotic state. All organization in the plant, animal, and man, is formed and maintained by special forces, counteracting the general laws to which matter is subject. Indeed, the material body is not a fixed, definite, and permanent object in itself. The substances which compose it are continually passing away, and must be continually renewed. They are like a flowing stream, going and coming. And the human form is perpetually maintained, because the soul seizes the new materials and casts them into her own image. The body is always dying and ever being born. When the form reaches its maximum, the creative and the destructive forces seem for a time to be in equilibrium. The banks of the stream are full. In a few years it begins to diminish, and no power of the soul is able to restore it to its former vigor, or to prevent it from final decay. There are no exceptions to this fact, either in plant or animal, and we have no grounds for supposing that any material organization is or could be indestructible.
Again, if people had lived immortal here, the number of inhabitants must, sooner or later, have reached the limit of the earth's ability to sustain them, or even to furnish room for them to stand; and then the creation of human souls must have ceased. But who can believe for a moment, that all the human beings this little mote in the universe can sustain, would satisfy the demands of infinite love and wisdom? What would the Lord do through the coming eternity? Could He be contented to sit down and merely listen to the endless repetition of prayers and praises from a few people and angels? That would be contrary to the very nature of love. Love impels to action; it is a motive power; it is creative. Fill a human heart with a powerful affection, and it impels the whole man to action. He cannot remain idle; idleness is a perfect torment to him. What then must be the effect of infinite love, guided by infinite wisdom?
But if the creation of human beings should cease by the limitation of the earth's capacity to supply their material wants, the whole structure of society must be changed. Many of its important elements would soon be wanting. There would be no infancy, no childhood, no age; no room for enterprise, and no ground for enlarged hope. People would be limited on all sides, and however high they might rise, society must, at some period, reach its level and become in a great measure stagnant. Viewed from the nature of matter and the material world, then, there are no evidences that it would have been for man's happiness, or that it would have been possible even, for a person to remain forever in this world. On the contrary, every principle of matter is against the supposition.
Let us now examine the question from the side of spirit, of the soul, and see if we can come to a different conclusion.
It is in accordance with the experience of all ages and universal consciousness, that all our mental and spiritual faculties are limited and restrained - "cabined, cribbed, confined" - by the material body. We begin to feel its restraint in infancy, and we maintain a life-long struggle against it. The infant feels it in its first efforts in learning to walk. Indeed, it is this very desire to escape from the restraint, that impels it to the difficult and perilous task. The foot will not convey it to the desired spot; the hand will not grasp the glittering bauble. The youth, with all his or her exuberant life and strength, chafes under it. They would mount with the eagle; they would fly with the wind; they would be here, there, everywhere, to gratify their insatiable curiosity. But the body lags behind and anchors them to the earth, and fetters their limbs. When they would learn to wield the instruments of labor or art, their industry and patience are tested to the utmost. Even in the prime of life, the body is never perfectly obedient to the soul. And then how soon the eye fails the scholar; the hand will not obey the musician; the nerves grow tremulous, and the muscles tire. A great part of the invention, skill, and effort of humanity is employed to overcome the weight and drag of the body. The steamship, the rail-car, and the telegraph, have all been called to assist people in keeping pace with their desires; and though they have nearly annihilated space and time, people are as impatient of delay as ever, and grieve and despair at the immeasurable distance between their attainments and their wants.
It is true a person gains in their control over the body for a time but they soon reach the limit of its capacities; and then its ability to express the thoughts and affections, and do the will of the spirit, continually diminishes. The strength fails; the senses grow obtuse and dim; and the body becomes the soul's prison; shuts it out from the material world and all its delights; fetters its limbs with feebleness, and immures it in a dungeon, devoid of light and joy. How terrible would be its fate if there was no release from it. And we have no grounds for believing that the body would not decay, even if man had not sinned, for the plant and the animal are subject to the same law. But death comes as a blessed deliverer from this bondage to the flesh; breaks off our chains, clears the mist from the eye, and sets every faculty free.
Without doubt this resistance stimulates and develops our spiritual faculties, compels us to control and moderate our desires, and in manifold ways is useful to us for a time. But suppose we could throw off this burden of clay entirely and escape all the limitations and obstructions of time and space, and still retain our personality and the reality of our existence, - should we not accomplish at once what we are in the continual effort to do with all our labor and skill? If the spirit is the man himself, this is the service death renders us, and therefore it is necessary to the attainment of the highest possibilities of our nature. Every spiritual principle demands it. It must, therefore, have been a part of the Divine plan in our creation. Keeping in mind this continual struggle of the soul against the limitations and weight of the body, let us see what the Lord reveals to us in His works concerning this subject. By general consent human beings are the only beings in the world that are not in order and harmony with all things. The laws which regulate the material world are so perfect in their action that whenever there is any perturbation, or deviation from the established harmony, scientists begin to search for the cause. Once they feared it was due to some defect, and foreboded ruin; but since they were better instructed, they seek for some wider and more general law. When Leverrier found that there were irregularities in the motions of the outermost planets in our solar system, which could not be accounted for by any known laws of planetary motion, he inferred that there was a planet beyond Herschel not yet known to astronomers. And, after much observation and many calculations, he told them where to look for it; and when they pointed their telescopes to the spot, they found it according to his prediction. Applying the same principle to man; when we see the perturbations and conflict between the spiritual and material conditions of his life, all analogy would lead to the conclusion that there must be some cause beyond this life, some world above this, to whose laws he is subject, and that this conflict with matter and struggle for freedom is due to grander harmonies, and bids us look to that world for the solution of this apparent anomaly and the true home of the soul.
The same lesson is taught still more forcibly in many other ways. So far as we know, there are no superfluous organs, no excess of power beyond use, in any part of the creation. Everything below human beings reaches its maturity, completes the cycle of its life, and attains its end. The plant does not seek to become an animal; the fish does not aspire to dwell upon the land or soar in the air; the animal gives no indications of any thought or desire for anything beyond this world. It finds enough here to satisfy every want and fill every desire. The demand and supply are always equal. There is no lack and no excess. There are no exceptions to this law.
This is not only true in general but in particular. Everywhere, in plant and animal, we find special adaptation. The child soon knows that the fish belongs to the water, and the bird to the air. This law of specific adaptation is so universal that scientists never hesitate a moment to decide according to it. The geologist finds for the first time the petrifactions of some long-extinct animal. The comparative anatomist will construct the whole animal from them. He or she will tell you whether it dwelt upon land or in the water, or both. Nay, more, the anatomist will give you the general condition of the earth at the time the animal existed. The instructed mind can see the climate, the natural production, the relative prevalence of land and water, and the complete natural history of the earth, all written on the scale of the fish and the petrified bone - so perfectly are all things and all planes of the creation related. Ask the anatomist how he or she knows. Tell her she has never seen the animal. Perhaps no human eye ever rested upon one of its kind. May she not be mistaken? She laughs at your incredulity. The Lord, she would say, never deviates from His laws; He never makes any mistakes; He never fails in perfect adaptations. I am as certain that my deductions are true, as you are that the fish on your table came from the water, though you never saw it there.
Now is it probable that this law of adaptation, in large things and small, in general and particular forms, is universal until we reach human beings, the crown and glory of the Lord's works, and then fails? It is too irrational and absurd to be admitted for a moment. It is evident enough, even to superficial observation, that all things below man were created for him, and while they are all so beautifully and perfectly adjusted to one another, do they fail of their last connection? No sane mind can admit so great an absurdity.
But we say, I do not feel in harmony with these earthly things. They do not fully con tent and satisfy me. Very true. Suppose they did, what would it prove? That we were an animal and nothing more. And the fact that no earthly good does content us proves just as conclusively that we have faculties which can only find full scope for their activities, and wants which can only be supplied in a spiritual world; and consequently, it shows that people must discard the material body before they can obtain the means of fully satisfying all their wants, and the absolute certainty that natural death was one of the merciful provisions of the Lord from the beginning.
There is another law in nature, also without exception, which leads by inevitable deductions to the same conclusion, and if possible makes it more certain. The plant and animal attain their perfection by distinct steps, and in the lower steps preparations are always made for the higher; and when the higher step is taken, the means by which it was taken become an encumbrance and are discarded. The natural world is full of illustrations of this law. Indeed, every organized form is an example of it. One will serve our purpose. Take the sparrow in the egg, just before it bursts the walls of its prison and escapes into the air. Here is a fully-organized being, and yet not one of its organs is adapted to its present condition. Here are bones, muscles, feathers, especially adapted, in every respect, to the air. Every part is constructed with the utmost lightness, and the muscles are distributed and gathered into volume for the express purpose of giving strength where it is most needed. The form of the wing is made to cleave the air and bear the bird aloft. It has eyes for light, lungs for breathing, and a throat for song. But the sparrow can exercise none of these functions in the shell. Suppose it was conscious of its state as it lay there in its womb, but did not know of any other world than that in which it was dwelling. It feels the impulse to stretch its wings, and pour forth a song, but it has no scope for either. If it reasoned as many men do, it would say: There is nothing here to content or satisfy me; but I know of nothing beyond. This shell is the boundary of my universe. If it should be destroyed, I might fall into nothingness, or be dispersed among the elements. How can a poor sparrow know anything beyond its own experience? It is true the sparrow cannot reason, but acts according to the instincts implanted in its nature by the Lord to be the law of its life, and consequently it struggles against its narrow walls, and soon emerges into a new world. Now it sports in short flights from tree to tree; fills the morning and the evening air with its social song; finds its mate and attains the full end of its creation. It feels no impulses, and has no hopes, beyond its fruition. It follows the law of Divine wisdom embodied in it, and reaps the full rewards of its obedience.
Now, we believe that every bone and muscle and feather, and every organ within and without, is a true prophet of its future state. We know also that every prophecy is fulfilled. These organs foretell another world of ineffable perfections compared with the one in which it was formed. They prophesy of air and light; of joyous song and social flight; of worm and seed for all its needs - and every prophecy is fulfilled to the letter.
So it is with everything in the material world. Wherever you find any overplus of organization or strength beyond the present wants of plant and animal, it is an unfailing evidence of a state not yet attained. Does any one suppose, then, that these blind surgings of man's soul against the prison walls of the body have no meaning? Does the Lord follow a certain method with unvarying regularity up to human beings, and then stop short, and even reverse it in them? No; it cannot be. The Lord always works like Himself; He pursues the same order and method in all planes of the creation that come within our knowledge, and no human ingenuity can suggest a reason why He should abandon them for man, more than for the insect and sparrow.
Every one knows that we never find anything in this world to content and satisfy us fully. We often think we shall be satisfied when we have a little more; but that little more enlarges and recedes as we approach it. Enough is an ever-receding goal. The people who have the most knowledge are the most eager for more. Those who have the largest fortunes are the most anxious to accumulate. Alexander weeps for more worlds to conquer; and Newton, who has weighed the planets in the balance of his intellect, and with cunning fingers has disentangled the solar ray and showed its various colored threads, standing on the pinnacle of his amazing knowledge, is yet "the little child upon the shore who has found only a few shells, while the vast ocean of truth lies unexplored before him." The artist embodies the highest conceptions of his genius on canvas or in marble; but immediately his conceptions rise above themselves; he sees new beauty and grandeur in the human form; and he, too, is running towards an ever-receding goal. The same is true, only in a greater degree, of the affections. There is no home so beautiful and full of, love as to satisfy every ideal affection; there is no being so perfectly the complement of our own, that we can conceive no lack and no superfluity.
These ideals and aspirations after something which the world cannot give, are to people, in the material body and the material world, what the organization of the sparrow is to the egg. They are voices implanted in our nature prophesying another world, that shall be adequate to our largest desires. These stirrings of a higher life within us; these surgings of mighty impulses against the walls of clay, are the struggles of the unhatched bird for a new state of being. They are not, they cannot be, the mockings of some tormenting fiend; they are the powerful voices of an all-merciful, all-wise Father, who has provided a better world for us than this; voices of love and hope, in which He calls us to believe in that world, and prepare for it.
But, as the sparrow could not fly in the summer air, and pour forth the fullness of its own delight in song until its organization had been effected in the shell, so neither can man enter into full consciousness of the perfections of the spiritual world, until the proper spiritual organization has been formed in the material body; and, as the bird cannot enter into its new world until it breaks its shell and escapes from it, so neither can man rise into the spiritual world until he throws off the material body, and thus breaks down the partition walls which separate him from it.
There is another legitimate deduction from these universal methods of the Divine operation, full of the greatest and surest promises of good to man. So far as we know, the plant, the bird, the animal, fully attain the ends of their being. The most perfect animal has no thought, no desire, no impulse even, for anything beyond this world. So far as they are concerned, the declaration of the Psalmist is true, "Thou openest thine hand and satisfiest the desire of every living thing." It is true for people also. It must be, or the whole creation is a lie. But we must take peoplesí whole beings into consideration. It is false only when we mistake the lowest and the merely rudimentary part of their nature for the whole. If you judge the plant by the blossom, or the insect by the chrysalis, you will come to the same false conclusion you do when you judge people by their life in the material body. Everything in the universe points to the conclusion that the Lord intended, and still intends, to satisfy every spiritual want of human beings, as fully as He satisfies every natural want of the animal. He has made such ample and varied provisions for every possible want, that people cannot frame a hope in harmony with the Divine order which will not be realized; they cannot have a desire that will not be gratified; they cannot conceive a good which they will not obtain; they cannot form a heavenly ideal which will not become actual; they cannot lift an aspiration above the level of his attainment. This is the Lord's promise in His Word, "Ye shall ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you;" and this promise is written upon the whole creation.
You have seen an animal in a good pasture lying in the shade or basking in the sun, and you knew that its desires were all satisfied; it had no dream of a want. Within the little round of its life it is content, it is full. Now, what the attainment of the animal is for the animal, will be humankindís attainment for humankind. With all their mental and spiritual faculties increased to n inconceivable degree of scope and power; with their knowledge and affections enlarged beyond the present capacities of the highest angel, yet every want will be satisfied. They will be full. Visions of glory and beauty will dawn upon their clear vision, such as no earthly eye has seen, and no heart conceived, and their will reach them, possess them, enjoy them, and they will be content. There are only two words that express such a state: Peace, Blessedness. Peace within, peace with all around. Blessedness in the heart; blessedness in the understanding; blessedness in every faculty and every relation.
This is what the Lord promises us in His Word, and in His works, and it is a promise He will fulfill to the letter. But you must give Him time, and be obedient to His way. He cannot give it to you while you are in the material body. He cannot give it to you in this world, any more than He can give flight and the joy of song to the bird in the egg. It requires a spiritual world to satisfy all the demands of our spiritual faculties.
Now gather all these considerations into one; the limitations and obstructions to the soul inherent in matter; the nature of the soul itself; the universal testimony of the Divine methods in the creation; the certainty with which the Lord accomplishes His ends, with no excess of means and no lack of attainment; the Divine promises in the Word; and does not everything point to the absolute necessity of the death of the body? Is there any exception to it? No, the testimony is all on one side. The soul could not possibly attain those immeasurable heights of perfection of which it knows itself to be capable, without freeing itself from the body. What we call death, then, is an orderly step in life. It is not a curse, but a blessing. It deprives us of no good. It introduces us to innumerable and inconceivable delights. Instead of fearing it, we should thank the Lord for it, and patiently await its coming. We should do our work here well, knowing it is the best preparation we can make for the largest blessings hereafter.