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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Life and Death

Life and Death.

We learn from the book of Genesis that "the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

A pre-christian philosophy deals still more liberally with him; and, discovering in his intellectual constitution indications of a divine nature, claims for him life and immortality beyond the grave. That man will exist in another state, hereafter, we do not dispute; but that he is immortal per se we unhesitatingly deny. He who first breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life must reanimate and sustain him on another arena; for, whether in this world or the next, "in God we live, and move, and have our being." To make man immortal per se is to deify page 263 him—to add another member to the Godhead already inconveniently and irrationally overcrowded.

A late earl conferred an unspeakable obligation on his fellow men by eliciting those excellent productions known as the Bridgewater Treatises, illustrative of the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation; and without doubt they have made it manifest that external nature and man's physical condition felicitously harmonise. The temperature at the surface of the earth when it was first honoured with inhabitants, must have been far too high for man as at present constituted; and an atmosphere impregnated with carbonic acid gas to the extent of supporting the vegetation that flourished during the formation of the coal measures, would be equally hostile to his well-being and existence. But since then, the temperature has been toned down to man's physical organisation; and the carbonic acid gas that before poisoned the air has been reduced to harmless dimensions. Man's moral and intellectual constitution demanded a more elaborate physical organisation than was conceded to his predecessors in existence; and doubtless he is entitled to rank, in every respect, as the first of all created beings; but we fail to discover in that organisation, admirable though it be, any intention on the part of the Deity to confer on man immunity from death; or, indeed, to make any difference between him and pre-adamite existences with regard to their liability to dissolution. We believe that the divine author of all things had appointed man once to die before he was created, and, of course, before sin was possible; and that when he breathed into man the breath of life, he at the same time breathed into him the breath of death; for the atmosphere that ventilates our lungs and aerates our blood—the air that we breathe—is at the same time our life and death, and will be to the end of the chapter.

Not quite a century ago, a Unitarian minister, Dr. Priestly, had the honour to astonish the world by discovering that the atmosphere was not a simple element, as previously supposed, but that it consisted of oxygen and nitrogen. Oxygen, of vital importance to us, eventually becomes our bane—fatal to us; whilst nitrogen, fatal to us per se, in combination with oxygen becomes not only harmless but beneficial. At first it appears strange that oxygen, the supporter of life, should enter into close alliance with nitrogen, the antagonist of every living thing; but had it not been for this arrangement man would not have lived out half his days. We should have lived too fast by half, as some of our fast friends notoriously do. They approve of oxygen, simple and uncombined with nitrogen, and finding it in brandy they too often find a premature grave as well. Without nitrogen to moderate and diminish the too energetic action of its companion, our animal spirits would mount up to the third heaven of excitement, and whilst one half the world would be page 264 down with fever the other moiety would be rampant in madness, and life would be reduced to the briefest chronicle. Some philosophers have denied the possibility of the world's conflagration; but were the Deity to withdraw the nitrogen that at present preserves us, the solid earth would light up in blazing rivalry with the sun; "the hardest rocks, the very crust of the earth, yea even the waters of the ocean would be set on fire, and all the elements of the world would literally melt with heat."*

The surface of the earth for the depth of eight miles is the mausoleum of man's predecessors in numbers inconceivable; and the anatomy of their remains shows that the principle of life that animated their whole system differed but little from that of their successors. Man, therefore, in dying, merely submits to the inevitable fate that, it may be, a million years ago, removed the living from existence to the universal charnel-house. And after all he is only called upon to submit to a law that in mercy provides him with a sepulchre for all the ills that flesh is heir to. God never intended that this world should be disfigured by the all but universal exhibition of humanity tottering on crutches "with every part blasted with antiquity." Three score years and ten is man's allotted course, and by this time, oppressed by infirmity, life has lost most of its attractions for him. A centenarian lady of our acquaintance, with no ailment but old age, used to say that the prospect of immediate dissolution would occasion her less uneasiness than the certainty of having to live as long again; and we believe that medical men almost invariably find that the aged meet their death with a calm resignation closely allied to satisfaction.

But another state of existence is claimed for man, and the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting are prominent items in the Christian creed throughout the world. It is alleged that life and immortality were brought to light by the gospel, though that doctrine was current centuries before the gospel was preached, and resurgam was as deeply chiselled on the tombs of Grecian and Oriental philosophers as on the marble monument of the Christian.

A modern writer of great ability has recently endeavoured to show that Jesus Christ was an Essenian Jew, and that he gave currency to the doctrines professed by that harmless section of the Hebrew community. The doctrines of a future state and the resurrection of the dead were certainly taught by the Essenes, who also professed a great contempt for riches, page 265 and advocated a communism of poverty, in all of which Jesus Christ was in strict unison with them; but they condemned anointing with oil, and were total abstainers from wine, in which particulars he differed from them. Still, associated as it is with other doctrines of the Essenians prominently taught by Jesus Christ, we have no doubt whatever that the doctrine of the resurrection as taught by him is altogether of Essenian origin.

By the resurrection of the dead it appears that we are not to understand the resurrection of the body, though Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples with the self-same body that was nailed to the cross, and that must have tasted death. John informs us that "one of the soldiers with a spear pierced the side of the dying man and forthwith came thereout blood and water," evidently indicating a rupture of the pericardium, which the faculty hold to be necessarily mortal.

We confess that Paul's explanation of the resurrection does not afford us the slightest assistance in unravelling the mystery. "But some men will say, How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die." The attempted analogy between a dead body and a grain of wheat is obviously a failure, and although Jesus Christ, according to John, discourses to the same purpose, still his authority will not make right that which is so flagrantly wrong. Jesus says, "Verily verily I say unto you except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone; but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit." So thought Paul; but both are wrong, and by their mistaken reasoning they establish the fact that there is no resurrection at all if the measure of it is to be gauged by the produce arising out of dead seed. If the seed be dead there can be no germination, no growth, no resurrection. The Egyptian wheat that a few years ago was taken from the mummy's hand and planted in England, had been dormant, but alive, for thousands of years; but under auspicious circumstances, with favourable temperature, moisture and soil, it woke up again, and gave evidence of a vigorous vitality in a produce of marvellous fertility.

Under ordinary circumstances, the resurrection of the body is an absurdity that may be made manifest without much difficulty. In death, the particles forming the body, released from vital control, evaporate, volatilise, and disperse on every hand with every wind, to become the constituents of, peradventure, twenty different bodies, animal and vegetable it may be. The last atom that formed the tip of Cleopatra's nose may possibly be in association with an aggregation of atoms that altogether form a great toe of Pius the Ninth. But where there are so many claimants for the same atom we apprehend the difficulty of satisfying all will be insuperable, and infer, therefore, that both the atom itself and the doctrine that honours it with resurrec- page 266 tion will be abandoned to those who may be able to make a profitable use of either one or the other.

The difficulty of dealing with the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has not been lessened by the manner in which the evangelists describe the appearance of Jesus Christ to his disciples after his crucifixion. Indeed their contradictions are so palpable and flagrant that we abandon their narrative as amongst difficulties altogether beyond our power of solution, and turn to the metaphysical aspect of the matter which we are glad to say we find much more satisfactory.

Both man and the inferior animals are alike subject to death; but for man alone is claimed the heritage of immortality, and why? Because man alone aspires to it and alone can comprehend it, or form the least conception of it; and because he does aspire to it is it presumed that he will realise it either for good or for evil, as his prior existence may determine. For every desire or faculty, either in man or in the inferior animals, there appears to be a counterpart in accordance therewith in external nature, and by analogy it is inferred that there would not be this "longing for immortality" were there no immortality to long for.

But man looks naturally and reasonably beyond the grave for the adjustment of those unadjusted accounts that death still leaves open between man and man, and between God and men. What gross, what execrably cruel injustice has not the white man inflicted upon his sable brother, and, hitherto, so far as this world is concerned, with perfect impunity? If the recording angel has registered the sighs and agonised groans of the tortured African, what a chronicle of deep damnation is there to greet and to appal the villainous man-stealer in another world? The account, though long and bloody, has yet to be adjusted; and our confidence in the justice of heaven leads us to the conviction that the coloured victim will find in a better world the justice that was denied to him in this. Successful villainy triumphs in a thousand forms. The traitor trustee betrays his trust and impoverishes the widow and the fatherless, whilst he feathers his own nest at the expense of those whom he was bound to cherish and defend. Whole families are reduced to desolation and despair by some artful thief who trims his villainous boat to sail with, not against, the law, and avoids and laughs at all its meshes; but because Justice is blind and impotent here is the account for ever closed, or, rather, is it never to be opened for adjudication?

And with regard to religious persecution. Is that a closed account? We incline to think not. To do the Romish Church justice we must admit that she possesses the best possible argument for a future state of punishment, insomuch that she preeminently deserves it. "We defy mortal man to read Dr. Baird's Sketches on Protestantism in Italy with Notices of the page 267 Waldenses, without rising from the perusal fully convinced that the atrocities of the minions of this wretched Church are unparalleled either here or in hell. But this is another unsettled account, and will probably require for its final adjustment a Judge, whose infallibility, we rejoice to know, is somewhat less questionable than that of Pope Pius the Ninth.

But the last great day of reckoning is not to be approached free of solicitude or misgiving. To the best of us, Death is the King of Terrors; but this is, in a great measure, attributable to censurable want of confidence in Him who has been our guide, our friend, and best benefactor throughout the whole course of our lives. We exclaim, in all sincerity, with Balaam, May I die the death of the righteous, and may my last end be like his. But to die the death of the righteous we must live the life of the righteous. Avoiding evil, may we be active in doing good. Religion is abundantly oppressed with Superstition; let us, in the interest of humanity, exert ourselves to improve matters in this respect. The world requires more light, and how is the darkness of error to be dispelled but by the radiance of the light of truth? Let us not, therefore, be idle in this respect, but determine to leave the world better and more enlightened than we found it, if to do so be within the compass of our ability. We came into the world all tears: may our passage through it be such that when we leave it our farewells may be couched in smiles,—the index of calm resignation and a confident hope that death may be the portal to a higher state of existence.

"On parent knees, a naked new-born child
Weeping thou sat'st while all around thee smiled;
So live, that sinking on thy last long sleep
Thou then may'st smile, while all around thee weep."


* A recent discovery presents us with oxygen performing a very important part in the economy of life as a powerful disinfectant in the form of ozone, which is pure oxygen under a different molecular arrangement. Oxygen appears as a molecule oxygen appears as a molecule of two atoms, ozone of three, and the latter operates as a disinfectant by parting with the third atom, which, combining with miasma, restores the atmosphere to its normal purity, the ozone itself falling back to its pristine condition of oxygen with a molecule of two atoms.