The probability of Christianity: A Sermon
Reed & Brett, Steam Printers Auckland "Evening Star Office.MDCCCLXXV
The Probability of Christianity.
"He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a re warder of them that diligently seek Him".—Hebrews xi. c., 6 v.
ccording to the teaching of Paul, whatever may be in our creed, there must be in it these two doctrines—God's existence, and God's favour to those who seek it. We must believe not only that there is a Supreme Being, but that there may be a relationship between Him and us — seeking on our part, rewarding on His. The disseverance of these two essentials was not peculiar to Paul's time. Few have denied the existence of a God, but many, while admitting this, have denied the possibility of any communion between the infinite and the finite; the divine and the human. They have believed that God is, but not that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.
Now, as it appears to us, the belief of the one, if permitted to have its right influence, must lead to that of the other. There is no resting-place for the mind till this result is reached. In the thought of a God there are elements whose legitimate conclusion is that He must sustain to us, and that we must sustain to Him the relationship which is implied in the word—religion. And, if this is the case, the farther conclusion is forced upon us that Christianity is that religion. In the Bible there are many evidences of the divinity of Christianity; but, by inference, the same result may be reached, through the knowledge obtainable in God's works. There is a logical connection between the existence of a God and the truth of Christianity. It amounts, it is true, to only a probability; but this is so strong that, when associated with the evidences in the Bible, it greatly confirms our belief.
The statement, then, which we shall consider, as suggested by the words of Paul here, has two parts : If there is a God it is probable that there is such a thing as religion : And if there is such a thing as religion it is probable that Christianity is true.
The material for this discussion is found in the knowledge of God and of man, as these are obtained in the works of nature, and the history of the human race. Does this knowledge then warrant the first conclusion—that there must be the relationship between God and man which religion implies?page 4
On looking at creation, the first thought about God that arises in the mind is that of Greatness. There is such a combination of the stupendous and the minute that the conviction is inevitable that the Supreme Being is infinite. Now, to the minds of some, the relationship between God and His creatures implied in religion is inconsistent with this greatness. A gulf not only immense but without limits prevents belief. But to our mind the reverse is the fair conclusion. The very greatness of God leads us to believe that He thinks of men, controls their affairs, and communes with their hearts. This implies far more than our minds can comprehend; but for this very reason it harmonizes with His greatness, increases our idea of it, and leads to the belief that it is true of Him.
Another thought about God, at once awakened in the mind on looking at the works of nature, is that of Goodness. This is implied in the idea of greatness, but it is so stamped on the face of all creation that it possesses a prominence peculiarly its own. By first implanting wants in His creatures, and then furnishing in profusion the supplies requisite for them, the Supreme Being has so diffused happiness throughout our world that we are lead to the conclusion that His goodness must be infinite. But if so good as to minister to physical wants, can He be indifferent to wants of a deeper and more important kind? Assuming for the present that there are desires, aspirations in man's spiritual being—that being which brings him to think of the unseen, and to be influenced by the thought—is it to be believed that these will be uncared for by a God so good as to provide for the most trivial wants of the tiniest insect? No. The more connected with happiness wants are, the more certain must be the provision from His hand. It would be an inexplicable anomaly if there were necessities in any of His creatures without what would meet them existing. He who cares for beauty for the eye, and music for the ear, and bounty for the sustenance of life cannot be indifferent to the emotions of the heart. In speaking of an imperfect being, reasoning from the greater to the less may be the only process; but from the less to the greater is what harmonizes with the character of the infinite God. If his goodness supplies the one, much more we infer will it supply the other.
Another important fact in regard to God, awakened in the mind by the works of creation, is that He carries on His operations by laws. Results in nature are not brought about by the special interference of power. An established order between cause and effect is everywhere discoverable, and any attempt on the part of the creature to break the connection is followed by penalty. But our mind reasons that if God has such regard for law in the physical world, He must have equal, yea greater regard for law in the moral world; that if He has attached penalties to the breach of laws which regulate dead matter, equally, yea more must He have attached penalties to the violation of those higher laws in which, as a Being perfect in justice and holiness, He must delight. This regard for the laws of rectitude, holiness, and truth implies a claim on the creatures placed under those laws. It page 5 is justice that He who gives and sustains life should have the services of those whom He so blesses, and hence the latter must have corresponding responsibility. To with old such service is a violation of moral duty, and this cannot be a matter of indifference to a Being who has such regard for law, as the works of nature prove God to have.
Here then are three facts in regard to God which may fairly lead us to infer that there is such a thing as religion. He is infinitely great, and must take knowledge of His creatures; and infinitely good, and must supply the highest wants of His creatures; and He has established universal physical laws, and must have regard to the moral duties which the law of rectitude demands of His creatures. These three facts constitute a foundation on which the superstructure of religion may rest.
We shall now consider some points in our knowledge of man. Here we find such a harmony between the human constitution and the known character of God that we are brought again to the conclsion that religion is probable. On looking at man the first thought is that of rationality. He can think, gather facts, reason regarding them, possess knowledge. What could be the purpose of the Supreme Being in endowing man with this great power? Is it said, to ascertain the facts and trace out the laws which are in God's works? We must go farther, and say, to discover the features which are in the character of God Himself. Reason is the consummation—the glory of creation; and it cannot but be that it was given to the creature to rise to the contemplation of the highest object—the Supreme Being. Important is it to gather facts, generalise them, and infer principles in the works of God; but higher is it to discover the features in the Great Worker Himself, which these facts and principles disclose, group them together, and hold before the mind the glorious character which He must possess. And this power in man, let it be observed, corresponds with the greatness of God, of which we spoke; and by the harmony, moreover, is formed the first essential element in religion. God must be thought of; His greatness makes Him worthy of it, and by reason or intelligence man is fitted to discover it.
Another prominent fact respecting the human constitution is Dependence. Than this, there is no feeling deeper in our nature, or earlier manifested in our life. It is seen in the helplessness of childhood, the vigor of manhood, the weakness of old age. But it stretches beyond the sphere of surrounding objects. Nothing is truer of the human race than that there is a deep consciousness of the existence of a Superior Being or beings, and that with this there are corresponding feelings of hope and trust. The universal worshipping of gods demonstrates that the human heart seeks the Unknown, "if haply it may feel after and find Him." The few who furnish an opposite experience are but as drops in the great stream of humanity as it rolls on from age to age. And the feeling is as indestructible as it is universal. Not ignorance however gross, nor degradation however vile, can cause this throbbing of page 6 the human heart to cease. And this feeling of dependence in the constitution of man corresponds, it will be marked, with the goodness in the character of God, to which we referred. If the thought of goodness were completely dissociated from the thought of a God there could not possibly be any seeking after Him. Even when men have clothed their gods with human passions there has always been underlying the worship the idea of sufficient goodness to give succour, or protection in certain circumstances. Separate the two—the dependence and the goodness—and there is an inexplicable mystery; unite the two, and there is beautiful harmony. Bring the goodness of God down to the human heart, and let the dependence of the human heart find its object in God, and there is corresponding fitness between the character of the Creator and the nature of the creature; even that corresponding fitness which constitutes another essential element in religion.
In the human constitution we see yet another prominent and important feature, namely—a sense of moral obligation. The feeling of dependence, of which we have spoken, is everywhere associated with fear. Trust and distrust are found side by side; and but for the indestructibility of the former, the latter would completely prevail. It is this fact that has given to the seeking after the Unknown, which is true of humanity, a peculiar form, namely—that of sacrifice, or satisfaction. There is a consciousness of failure in duty, of exposure to displeasure and danger; and hence the prevailing attempt to atone for, or satisfy. And this element of moral responsibility, it will be noticed, corresponds with the regard for law which is true of God. Were God indifferent to moral duty how could man have this sense of moral obligation—a sense, let it be marked, which is not bounded by creature relationships. It would be a feature in the constitution of man without a corresponding feature in the character of God; and, therefore, a feature purposeless—meaningless. Thus the respect for moral law, which we inferred to be true of God from His operations in the physical world, harmonizes with the sense of right and wrong, and of responsibility arising out of it, of which men everywhere are conscious; and this harmony supplies a third essential element in religion.
Thus then, what we learn of God and of man, apart from the Bible, warrants the belief of the relationship between God and man which religion implies: greatness, goodness, regard for law on the one hand; reason, dependence, moral obligation on the other. If the relationship is denied, what we discover presents a disagreement between the crowning work of God in this world and His own character—a disagreement which we discover nowhere else, and which we cannot comprehend. Is it to be supposed that the wonderful adaptation which runs through all creation should fail only in regard to man, and to man too in the powers and requirements of his higher nature? Assuredly not. There is a manward side in the divine, and a Godward side in the human; and there must be develop- page 7 ment of both. Religion is this development. Deny it, and there is perplexity and darkness; admit it, and there is light and satisfaction.
But, if the existence of such a thing as religion is probable, we infer that the truth of Christianity is probable. This is the second part of the statement which we have to consider.
In reasoning from the probability of religion to the probability of the truth of Christianity a difficulty is met with at the outset, namely—the existence of moral evil in the world. Though the character of the Creator and the constitution of the creature must have harmonized as the latter came from the hand of the former, securing the relationship which religion implies, it does not follow that that harmony has survived the effects of moral evil in the creature. May not holiness, justice, and consequent anger on the part of God now prevent it? May not the yearnings after the Unseen, that still linger in man, be doomed to remain unsatisfied? May not the sense of moral obligation, which perplexes men, be but the precursor of deeper sorrow in the future? Have we, then, any ground for concluding that God may have interfered to counteract the effects of the change that has taken place in the human race, so that the relationship of religion between Him and His creatures may still exist?
To our mind there is reason for such a supposition. Look, first of all, at the world in which we live. Has it the appearance of being only a prison-house? Does it bear the marks of the rule of holiness and justice only? Are its voices nothing else than the utterances of condemnation? Nay. Do the sunshine and the bounty not hint at peace? Has the goodness originally stamped on creation not gained a new aspect, even that of forbearance? If holiness and justice are elements in the character of the Supreme—and to this a moment's reflection must lead us—it is difficult, yea, impossible to imagine the absence of displeasure from His heart; yet are not men at once removed from the earth, nor treated altogether as criminals. The beauty and comfort, then, of this world-home, and the continued life of men in it, we cannot understand without the belief that there is a hidden purpose in the heart of God—a purpose which nothing else but the continuance of the relationship implied in religion can possibly explain.
Then look at the condition of man in the world. There is the strange and significant fact that there is discipline in it. All the surroundings are corrective in their influence. There is reward or punishment in everything. That, we venture to say, cannot be satisfactorily accounted for but on the supposition of the continued possibility of religion.
Then how is that seeking after the Unseen, of which we have spoken, to be explained but on the ground of the same belief? What has kept alive through the ages of the past the aspirations and the dependence of the human heart? Is it said that this is the result of a conservative principle in human nature? It is to be remembered that the tendency of human nature in that sphere is not conservative page 8 but destructive; and the belief is inevitable that, but for some other power than that of man, the destructive process would have been short and complete. Nothing can account for the continuance of those glimmering rays of light that shoot across man's path, and stir man's heart in the midst of his darkness but the restraining hand of God; nor for the preservation of the dilapidated walls and broken columns of the ruined temple of man's soul but the purpose of God still to be worshipped there.
Thus even in the presence of the difficulty of the existence of moral evil, the condition of the world and of men in it awaken the belief, that it is the purpose of God that the relationship implied in religion should still remain.
But if so, Christianity alone can lay claim to the possession of the requisite characteristics. No other religion can satisfy man's reason and man's heart, and have real power in man's life. Of all the false systems of religion Deism alone is worthy of notice here. Its belief is that unassisted the mind can adore, and the heart commune with the Glorious Being whose character is mirrored in creation. But if there is a new element in man's constitution the voice of nature cannot meet the change. There was nothing in nature anticipatory of it, and therefore there can be nothing counteractive of the results. Religion is possible now only on the supposition of a new revelation. What is the mind of God in regard to sin? The answer to that question is the essence of Christianity—its real worth to man. Thus the problem of our nature, as now existing, finds a solution in, and only in the Christian religion.
But it may be asked—does not Christianity, in solving the problem of moral evil in humanity, completely destroy the probability for which we are contending? The mode of solution is the suffering of the Son of the Supreme; and is it not a most improbable thing that a Being infinite and self-existent should give Himself to death in human nature for guilty creatures? Now, viewed in the light of the character of man, the improbability of such an event is indeed great; but viewed in the light of the character of God, instead of there being improbability there is probability. If left to solve the problem of guilt no created mind could ever have thought of such a plan; but when made known, and viewed in the light of the character of the Supreme, we can readily believe it. The sacrifice indicated was indeed tremendous; but does not this fact harmonize with, and find an explanation in the infinite perfections of His character? The more unlikely the event is on account of man's guilt, just the more likely is it on account of God's glory.
Then is there not probability in the peculiar attributes displayed? Was the tender, pleading voice of mercy never to be heard in the Universe? Was the sweet forgiveness of God never to be experienced in the heart of a creature? These are the brightest features in any character. Is it to be thought that the character of the great God could be for ever without that peculiar lustre? The features of his character would have been perfect, but incomplete would have been the manifestation; and will it be asserted that this was likely?page 9
Thus the very greatness of the event harmonizes with the greatness of God; while the attributes displayed must be his delight as they are his peculiar glory. The solution of the problem of moral evil which Christianity reveals, detracts not from, but adds to the probability of Christianity. It stands therefore a thought which should command belief, that if it is the purpose of God that religion should still be in man's heart, Christianity alone possessing the requisite characteristics must be true; a belief which is not destroyed but confirmed by the stupendous—the Godlike means by which it has been accomplished.
The value of the probability of the truth of Christianity we have now traced is not to be under-estimated. It shows that there are difficulties apart from the Bible to be solved; it shows that a system like Christianity can alone solve them; it shows that if there is a God we must believe that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, and that, now, as the Christian religion describes.
This subject has some bearing on the present attitude of science towards religion in some quarters. The tendency of science in the present day in subjecting all things, and that for millions of years to nothing but inexorable laws, is undoubtedly atheistical; yet is not the actual depth of atheism always, or even often reached by those following out these branches of knowledge. To whatever distance the mind may go back, it seems to demand the exercise of some original power, or force. Hence the existence of a Supreme Being if not broadly admitted, is not bluntly denied. And this concession on the part of scientific men to the prevailing belief is hailed with gratitude and gladness as if forsooth their dictum, had they uttered it, would have banished the Almighty from His universe. But what, after all, is the worth of the belief of a God if the theory of inexorably fixed laws for many millions of years, without any possible interference on the part of God, is true? What signifies it to us that there is a God, if that complicated machinery of laws is between him and our souls, if he takes no cognizance of us and hears not our cry? We are but units in the human race, come into the world to be controlled for a little by the laws around us, and then to pass away for ever and be as if we had never been. If this satisfies the mind in regard to God's works, it assuredly cannot satisfy the heart in regard to God Himself. Thus the admission that is so praised, and that the world pauses breathlessly to hear, practically amounts to nothing. It cuts at the foundation of all reward; it makes all seeking after God a delusion, and brands Christianity, which gives shape and form to the seeking, as a mockery and a fraud.
To scientific men we readily concede the right of entering the domain of religious belief, taking with them their discoveries as a standard of truth. The religious dogmas, that either by their own nature or the mode of their revelation, come within the sphere which scientific investigation occupies, must stand the test of ascertained fact. But we ask that this be done on two conditions, the first of page 10 which is that all the branches of science be taken into account before a decision is arrived at. Mental and moral science furnish facts as certain and as important as is done by any of the physical sciences. Truths are to be learned from the history of the human race as well as from the history of the rocks. If a fossil, or a bone, or a feather leads to certain conclusions, no less do the desires and aspirations which for ages have controlled the human race; and it is as much the demand of reason and justice that the one be taken into account as well as the other in every enquiry into religious truth.
The other condition is that in every department of science that is examined, facts, not theories, be employed in determining the questions at issue. This distinction is often overlooked. Facts and the opinions founded on them, results and the inferences drawn from them, may be so associated and mixed up that those who are dealing with them may be deceived or misled.
Now in the attacks on the Christian religion which are being made from the side of science these two conditions are not fulfilled. Though the phenomena observable in rocks, plants, and animals receive due weight, the phenomena in human nature are altogether overlooked. The adaptation of surrounding circumstances to every object is firmly asserted; but what is to meet the wants and longings of the human heart receives no enquiry whatever. Every wonder is set down to law, but the consciousness of right and wrong, and of moral accountability—which is not an accident, but a part of our very constitution—is set down to nothing. Thus the results attained in the physical world have so absorbed attention that the principles in the mental and moral nature of man are altogether overlooked.
Then in the branches of science that are examined, not facts but theories, not results but inferences are put forward as shaking religious beliefs. Through the ramifications of their researches scientific men can be authoritatively followed by few, but when they come to reason about their facts they are as other men. And we find that in regard to man physically, there are assumptions from which our reason recoils; and that in regard to man mentally, there are conjectures to which credulity, in its highest flights, cannot yield assent. Yea, we find that the very points from which the attacks on religion are made are beyond ascertained phenomena and the sphere of human experience.
If, then, some branches of science are not taken into account at all; and if in those which are examined fictions instead of facts are presented, the theory of the operation of laws to the complete exclusion of a presiding God is not established, and the claim of entering the domain of religious belief so boastingly made, and so readily granted ends in—nothing. While acceding to scientific men the right to enter the domain of religion, we claim for the friends of religion the right to enter the domain of science, and to demand that science shall be true to itself, and not employ conjecture for reality as the means of assailing what is held as supremely sacred and momentously precious by multitudes.page 11
Not thus is the common consent of mankind to be set aside; not thus are the utterances of the burdened heart of humanity to be hushed; not thus is the indestructible instinct, the deep longing in our natures, which has immortality as its object, to be crushed and quieted. Poor in value is all conjecture about the past if it enshrouds the future in gloom and darkness; and every theory of the origin of life if it opens up before us nothing but the yawning gulf of annihilation. The progress which the necessities of our nature demand is not that of the race with the passing away of the individual for ever, but that of the race with the perfecting of the individual in a higher, holier, happier kind of existence. Tell us of the changes which have been going on for millions of years, yet our minds leap over them all to the Being that must have existed for ever and that never changes and there we find a bosom whose love and sympathy can be our solace and succour in all the vicissitudes and sorrows of life, and through all the untried experiences of death. These are the natural dictates of our hearts, and they are met by Christianity, and not from them shall we be driven by theories gratuitously framed, and shifting as are the sands of the ocean. The thunder dies away, the lightning's flash is quenched, and the steady shining of the sun goes on. God is, and He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.
In these remarks we have said nothing of the ordinary evidences of Christianity. These are a tower of strength, and moreover present facts demanding explanation as imperatively as any of the discoveries of science. Our object has been to give expression to a deep conviction in our mind that if there is a God He must have something to do with us, and that we must have something to do with Him, and that, if so, Christianity alone can now furnish the means of communication. The probability thus arrived at gives weight to the ordinary evidences of Christianity; but not only so, it explains the force of that kind of evidence which is the highest and most certain of all, namely — that of experience. Why is it that the advanced Christian has such unwavering confidence in the truth of his religion? Not merely because he believes in the possibility of miracle and the fulfilment of prophecy; not merely because he appreciates the beauty of the language, the purity of the morals, and the sublimity of the life of Jesus presented in the Bible, but because he feels that the blessings of Christianity fully meet the wants of his nature of which he is deeply conscious. With him the probabilities have risen to certainties. For his guilty, burdened heart he feels he has pardon, and he has peace. Once he was blind, but now he sees. He has sought, and he has found. He knows sweetly that God is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.page break