THE FUTURE STATE A SELF-CONSCIOUS STATE
BY WILLIAM G. T. SHEDD, D. D.,
1 COR. xiii. 12.—”Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
In the preceding discourse, we found in these words the principal characteristic of our future existence. The world beyond the tomb is a world of clear and conscious knowledge. When, at death, I shall leave this region of time and sense and enter eternity, my knowledge, the apostle Paul tells me instead of being diminished or extinguished by the dissolution, of the body, will not only be continued to me, but will be even greater and clearer than before. He assures me that the kind and style of my cognition will be like that of God himself. I am to know as I am known. My intelligence will coincide with that of Deity.
By this we are not to understand that the creature’s knowledge, in the future state, will be as extensive as that of the Omniscient One; or that it will be as profound and exhaustive as His. The infinitude of things can be known only by the Infinite Mind; and the creature will forever be making new acquisitions, and never reaching the final limit of truths and facts. But upon certain moral subjects, the perception of the creature will be like that of his Maker and Judge, so far as the kind or quality of the apprehension is concerned. Every man in eternity, for illustration, will see sin to be an odious and abominable thing, contrary to the holy nature of God, and awakening in that nature the most holy and awful displeasure. His knowledge upon this subject will be so identical with that of God, that he will be unable to palliate or excuse his transgressions, as he does in this world. He will see them precisely as God sees them. He must know them as God knows them, because he will “know even as he is known.”
II. In continuing the examination of this solemn subject, we remark as a second and further characteristic of the knowledge which every man will possess in eternity, that he will know himself even as he is known by God. His knowledge of God we have found to be direct, accurate, and unceasing; his knowledge of his own heart will be so likewise. This follows from the relation of the two species of cognition to each other. The true knowledge of God involves the true knowledge of self. The instant that any one obtains a clear view of the holy nature of his Maker, he obtains a clear view of his own sinful nature. Philosophers tell us, that our consciousness of God and our consciousness of self mutually involve and imply each other; in other words, that we cannot know God without immediately knowing ourselves, any more than we can know light without knowing darkness, any more than we can have the idea of right without having the idea of wrong. And it is certainly true that so soon as any being can intelligently say, “God is holy,” he can and must say, “I am holy,” or, “I am unholy,” as the fact may be. Indeed, the only way in which man can truly know himself is to contrast himself with his Maker; and the most exhaustive self-knowledge and self-consciousness is to be found, not in the schools of secular philosophy but, in the searchings of the Christian heart,—in the “Confessions” of Augustine; in the labyrinthine windings of Edwards “On the Affections.” Hence the frequent exhortations in the Bible to look at the character of God, in order that we may know ourselves and be abased by the contrast. In eternity, therefore, if we must have a clear and constant perception of God’s character, we must necessarily have a distinct and unvarying knowledge of our own. It is not so here. Here in this world, man knows himself but “in part.” Even when he endeavors to look within, prejudice and passion often affect his judgment; but more often, the fear of what he shall discover in the secret places of his soul deters him from making the attempt at self-examination. For it is a surprising truth that the transgressor dares not bring out into the light that which is most truly his own, that which he himself has originated, and which he loves and cherishes with all his strength and might. He is afraid of his own heart! Even when God forces the vision of it upon him, he would shut his eyes; or if this be not possible, he would look through distorting media and see it with a false form and coloring.
“But ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature: and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.”
The spirit that has come into the immediate presence of God, and beholds Him face to face, cannot deceive Him, and therefore cannot deceive itself. It cannot remain ignorant of God’s character any longer, and therefore cannot remain ignorant of its own.
We do not sufficiently consider and ponder the elements of anguish that are sleeping in the fact that in eternity a sinner must know God’s character, and therefore must know his own. It is owing to their neglect of such subjects, that mankind so little understand what an awful power there is in the distinct perception of the Divine purity, and the allied consciousness of sin. Lord Bacon tells us that the knowledge acquired in the schools is power; but it is weakness itself, if compared with that form and species of cognition which is given to the mind of man by the workings of conscience in the light of the Divine countenance. If a transgressor knew clearly what disclosures of God’s immaculateness and of his own character must be made to him in eternity, he would fear them, if unprepared, far more than physical sufferings. If he understood what capabilities for distress the rational spirit possesses in its own mysterious constitution, if when brought into contact with the Divine purity it has no sympathy with it, but on the contrary an intense hostility; if he knew how violent will be the antagonism between God’s holiness and man’s sin when, the two are finally brought together, the assertion that there is no external source of anguish in hell, even if it were true, would afford him no relief. Whoever goes into the presence of God with a corrupt heart carries thither a source of sorrow that is inexhaustible, simply because that corrupt heart must be distinctly known, and perpetually understood by its possessor, in that Presence. The thoughtless man may never know while upon earth, even “in part,” the depth and the bitterness of this fountain,—he may go through this life for the most part self-ignorant and undistressed,—but he must know in that other, final, world the immense fullness of its woe, as it unceasingly wells up into everlasting death. One theory of future punishment is, that our globe will become a penal orb of fire, and the wicked with material bodies, miraculously preserved by Omnipotence, will burn forever in it. But what is this compared with the suffering soul? The spirit itself, thus alienated from God’s purity and conscious that it is, wicked, and knowing that it is wicked, becomes an “orb of fire.” “It is,”—says John Howe, who was no fanatic, but one of the most thoughtful and philosophic of Christians,—”it is a throwing hell into hell, when a wicked man comes to hell; for he was his own hell before.”
It must ever be borne in mind, that the principal source and seat of future torment will be the sinner’s sin. We must never harbor the thought, or fall into the notion, that the retributions of eternity are a wanton and arbitrary infliction upon the part of God. Some men seem to suppose, or at any rate they represent, that the woes of hell are a species of undeserved suffering; that God, having certain helpless and innocent creatures in His power, visits them with wrath, in the exercise of an arbitrary sovereignty. But this is not Christ’s doctrine of endless punishment. There is no suffering inflicted, here or hereafter, upon any thing but sin,—unrepented, incorrigible sin,—and if you will show me a sinless creature, I will show you one who will never feel the least twinge or pang through all eternity. Death is the wages of sin. The substance of the wretchedness of the lost will issue right out of their own character. They will see their own wickedness steadily and clearly, and this will make them miserable. It will be the carrying out of the same principle that operates here in time, and in our own daily experience. Suppose that by some method, all the sin of my heart, and all the sins of my outward conduct, were made clear to my own view; suppose that for four-and-twenty hours continuously I were compelled to look at my wickedness intently, just as I would look intently into a burning furnace of fire; suppose that for this length of time I should see nothing, and hear nothing, and experience nothing of the world, about me, but should be absorbed in the vision of my own disobedience of God’s good law, think you that (setting aside the work of Christ) I should be happy? On the contrary, should I not be the most wretched of mortals? Would not this self-knowledge be pure living torment? And yet the misery springs entirely out of the sin. There is nothing arbitrary or wanton in the suffering. It is not brought in upon me from the outside. It comes out of myself. And, while I was writhing under the sense and power of my transgressions, would you mock me, by telling me that I was a poor innocent struggling in the hands of omnipotent malice; that the suffering was unjust, and that if there were any justice in the universe, I should be delivered from it? No, we shall suffer in the future world only as we are sinners, and because we are sinners. There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, only because the sinful creature will be compelled to look at himself; to know his sin in the same manner that it is known by the Infinite Intelligence. And is there any injustice in this? If a sinful being cannot bear the sight of himself, would you have the holy Deity step in between him and his sins, so that he should not see them, and so that he might be happy in them? Away with such folly and such wickedness. For it is the height of wickedness to desire that some method should be invented, and introduced into the universe of God, whereby the wages of sin shall be life and joy; whereby a sinner can look into his own wicked heart and be happy.
III. A third characteristic of the knowledge which every man will possess in eternity will be a clear understanding of the nature and wants of the soul. Man has that in his constitution, which needs God, and which cannot be at rest except in God. A state of sin is a state of alienation and separation from the Creator. It is, consequently, in its intrinsic nature, a state of restlessness and dissatisfaction. “There is no peace saith my God to the wicked; the wicked are like the troubled sea.” In order to know this, it is only necessary to bring an apostate creature, like man, to a consciousness of the original requirements and necessities of his being. But upon this subject, man while upon earth most certainly knows only “in part.” Most men are wholly ignorant of the constitutional needs of a rational spirit, and are not aware that it is as impossible for the creature, when in eternity, to live happily out of God, as it is for the body to live at all in the element of fire. Most men, while here upon earth, do not know upon this subject as they are known. God knows that the whole created universe cannot satisfy the desires of an immortal being, but impenitent men do not know this fact with a clear perception, and they will not until they die and go into another world.
And the reason is this. So long as the worldly natural man lives upon earth, he can find a sort of substitute for God. He has a capacity for loving, and he satisfies it to a certain degree by loving himself; by loving fame, wealth, pleasure, or some form of creature-good. He has a capacity for thinking, and he gratifies it in a certain manner by pondering the thoughts of other minds, or by original speculations of his own. And so we might go through with the list of man’s capacities, and we should find, that he contrives, while here upon earth, to meet these appetences of his nature, after a sort, by the objects of time and sense, and to give his soul a species of satisfaction short of God, and away from God. Fame, wealth, and pleasure; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life; become a substitute for the Creator, in his search, for happiness. As a consequence, the unregenerate man knows but “in part” respecting the primitive and constitutional necessities of his being. He is feeding them with a false and unhealthy food, and in this way manages to stifle for a season their true and deep cravings. But this cannot last forever. When a man dies and goes into eternity, he takes nothing with him but his character and his moral affinities. “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.” The original requirements and necessities of his soul are not destroyed by death, but the earthly objects by which he sought to meet them, and by which he did meet them after a sort, are totally destroyed. He still has a capacity for loving; but in eternity where is the fame, the wealth, the pleasure upon which he has hitherto expended it? He still has a capacity for thinking; but where are the farm, the merchandise, the libraries, the works of art, the human literatures, and the human philosophies, upon which he has heretofore employed it? The instant you cut off a creature who seeks his good in the world, and not in God, from intercourse with the world, you cause him to know even as he is known respecting the true and proper portion of his soul. Deprived of his accustomed and his false object of love and support, he immediately begins to reach out in all directions for something to love, something to think of, something to trust in, and finds nothing. Like that insect in our gardens which spins a slender thread by which to guide itself in its meanderings, and which when the clew is cut thrusts out its head in every direction, but does not venture to advance, the human creature who has suddenly been cut off by death from his accustomed objects of support and pleasure stretches out in every direction for something to take their place. And the misery of his case is, that when in his reachings out he sees God, or comes into contact with God, he starts back like the little insect when you present a coal of fire to it. He needs as much as ever, to love some being or some thing. But he has no heart to love God and there is no other being and no other thing in eternity to love. He needs, as much as ever, to think of some object or some subject. But to think of God is a distress to him; to reflect upon divine and holy things is weariness and woe. He is a carnal, earthly-minded man, and therefore cannot find enjoyment in such meditations. Before he can take relish in such objects and such thinking, he must be born again; he must become a new creature. But there is no new-birth of the soul in eternity. The disposition and character which a man takes along with him when he dies remains eternally unchanged. The constitutional wants still continue. The man must love, and must think. But the only object in eternity upon which such capability can be expended is God; and the carnal mind, saith the Scripture, is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
Now, whatever may be the course of a man in this life; whether he becomes aware of these created imperatives, and constitutional necessities of his immortal spirit or not; whether he hears its reproaches and rebukes because he is feeding them with the husks of earth, instead of the bread of heaven, or not; it is certain that in the eternal world they will be continually awake and perpetually heard. For that spiritual world will be fitted up for nothing but a rational spirit. There will be nothing material, nothing like earth, in its arrangements. Flesh and blood cannot inherit either the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Satan. The enjoyments and occupations of this sensuous and material state will be found neither in heaven nor in hell. Eternity is a spiritual region, and all its objects, and all its provisions, will have reference solely to the original capacities and destination of a spiritual creature. They will, therefore, all be terribly reminiscent of apostasy; only serving to remind the soul of what it was originally designed to be, and of what it has now lost by worshipping and loving the creature more than the Creator. How wretched then must man be, when, with the awakening of this restlessness and dissatisfaction of an immortal spirit, and with the bright pattern of what he ought to be continually before his eye, there is united an intensity of self-love and enmity toward God, that drives him anywhere and everywhere but to his Maker, for peace and comfort. How full of woe must the lost creature be, when his immortal necessities are awakened and demand their proper food, but cannot obtain it, because of the aversion of the heart toward the only Being who can satisfy them. For, the same hatred of holiness, and disinclination toward spiritual things, which prevents a man from choosing God for his portion here, will prevent him hereafter. It is the bold fancy of an imaginative thinker, that the material forces which lie beneath external nature are conscious of being bound down and confined under the crust of the earth, like the giant Enceladus under Mt. Etna, and that there are times when they roar from the depths where they are in bondage, and call aloud for freedom; when they rise in their might, and manifest themselves in the earthquake and the volcano. It will be a more fearful and terrific struggle, when the powers of an apostate being are roused in eternity; when the then eternal sin and guilt has its hour of triumph, and the eternal reason and conscience have their hour of judgment and remorse; when the inner world of man’s spirit, by this schism and antagonism within it, has a devastation and a ruin spread over it more awful than that of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
We have thus, in this and the preceding discourse, considered the kind and quality of that knowledge which every human being will possess in the eternal world. He will know God, and he will know himself, with a distinct, and accurate, and unceasing intelligence like that of the Deity. It is one of the most solemn and startling themes that can be presented to the human mind. We have not been occupied with what will be around a creature, what will be outside of a man, in the life to come; but we have been examining what will be within him. We have been considering what he will think of beyond the tomb; what his own feelings will be when he meets God face to face. But a man’s immediate consciousness determines his happiness or his misery. As a man thinketh in his heart so is he. We must not delude ourselves with the notion, that the mere arrangements and circumstances of the spiritual world will decide our weal or our woe, irrespective of the tenor of our thoughts and affections; that if we are only placed in pleasant gardens or in golden streets, all will be well. As a man thinketh in his heart, so will he be in his experience. This vision of God, and of our own hearts, will be either the substance of heaven, or the substance of hell. The great future is a world of open vision. Now, we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face. The vision for every human creature will be beatific, if he is prepared for it; will be terrific, if he is unprepared.
Does not the subject, then, speak with solemn warning to every one who knows that he is not prepared for the coming revelations that will be made to him when he dies; for this clear and accurate knowledge of God, and of his own character? Do you believe that there is an eternal world, and that the general features of this mode of existence have been scripturally depicted? Do you suppose that your present knowledge of the holiness of God, and of your own sinful nature, is equal to what it will be when your spirit returns to God who gave it? Are you prepared for the impending and inevitable disclosures and revelations of the day of judgment? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Eternal Son of God, who came forth from eternity eighteen centuries since, and went back into eternity, leaving upon record for human instruction an unexaggerated description of that invisible world, founded upon the personal knowledge of an eye-witness?
Whoever thus believes, concerning the record which Christ and His apostles have left for the information of dim-eyed mortals who see only “through a glass darkly,” and who know only “in part,” ought immediately to adopt their descriptions and ponder them long and well. We have already observed, that the great reason why the future state exerts so little influence over worldly men lies in the fact, that they do not bring it into distinct view. They live absorbed in the interests and occupations of earth, and their future abode throws in upon them none of its solemn shadows and warnings. A clear luminous perception of the nature and characteristics of that invisible world which is soon to receive them, would make them thoughtful and anxious for their souls; for they would become aware of their utter unfitness, their entire lack of preparation, to see God face to face. Still, live and act as sinful men may, eternity is over and around them all, even as the firmament is bent over the globe. If theirs were a penitent and a believing eye, they would look up with adoration into its serene depths, and joyfully behold the soft gleam of its stars, and it would send down upon them the sweet influences of its constellations. They may shut their eyes upon all this glory, and feel only earthly influences, and continue to be “of the earth, earthy.” But there is a time coming when they cannot but look at eternity; when this firmament will throw them into consternation by the livid glare of its lightnings, and will compel them to hear the quick rattle and peal of its thunder; when it will not afford them a vision of glory and joy, as it will the redeemed and the holy, but one of despair and destruction.
There is only one shelter from this storm; there is only one covert from this tempest. He, and only he, who trusts in Christ’s blood of atonement, will be able to look into the holy countenance of God, and upon the dread record of his own sins, without either trembling or despair. The merits and righteousness of Christ so clothe the guilty soul, that it can endure the otherwise intolerable brightness of God’s pure throne and presence.
“Jesus! Thy blood and righteousness,
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Mid flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.”
Amidst those great visions that are to dawn upon every human creature, those souls will be in perfect peace who trust in the Great Propitiation. In those great tempests that are to shake down the earth and the sky, those hearts will be calm and happy who are hid in the clefts of the Rock of Ages. Flee then to Christ, ye prisoners of hope. Make preparation to know even as you are known, by repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. A voice comes to you out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.” Remember, and forget not, that this knowledge of God and your own heart is inevitable. At death, it will all of it flash upon the soul like lightning at midnight. It will fill the whole horizon of your being full of light. If you are in Christ Jesus, the light will not harm you. But if you are out of Christ, it will blast you. No sinful mortal can endure such a vision an instant, except as he is sprinkled with atoning blood, and clothed in the righteousness of the great Substitute and Surety for guilty man. Flee then to CHRIST, and so be prepared to know God and your own heart, even as you are known.