MoboReader> Literature > The Truth of Christianity

   Chapter 13 THAT THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION IS CREDIBLE.

The Truth of Christianity By William Harry Turton Characters: 46696

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


By the Christian Religion is meant the Three Creeds, its four great doctrines.

(A.) The Trinity.

(1.) Its meaning; Three Persons in One Nature.

(2.) Its credibility; this must be admitted.

(3.) Its probability more likely than simple Theism.

(B.) The Incarnation.

(1.) Its difficulties; not insuperable.

(2.) Its motive; God, it is said, loves man, and wishes man to love Him, not improbable for several reasons.

(3.) Its historical position.

(C.) The Atonement.

The common objections do not apply because of the willingness of the Victim.

(1.) As to the Victim; it does away with the injustice.

(2.) As to the Judge; it appeals to His mercy not justice.

(3.) As to the sinner; it has no bad influence.

(D.) The Resurrection.

(1.) Christ's Resurrection; not incredible, for we have no experience to judge by.

(2.) Man's resurrection; not incredible, for the same body need not involve the same molecules.

(E.) Conclusion.

Three considerations which show that the Christian Religion, though improbable, is certainly not incredible.

We pass on now to the Christian Religion, by which we mean the facts and doctrines contained in the Three Creeds, commonly, though perhaps incorrectly, called the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian. And, as these doctrines are of such vast importance, and of so wonderful a character, we must first consider whether they are credible. Is it conceivable that such doctrines should be true, no matter what evidence they may have in their favour? In this chapter, therefore, we shall deal chiefly with the difficulties of Christianity. Now its four great and characteristic doctrines are those of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection. We will examine each in turn, and then conclude with a few general remarks.

(A.) The Trinity.

To begin with, the Christian religion differs from all others in its idea of the nature of God. According to Christianity, the Deity exists in some mysterious manner as a Trinity of Persons in a Unity of Nature; so we will first consider the meaning of this doctrine, then its credibility, and lastly its probability. It is not, as some people suppose, a kind of intellectual puzzle, but a statement which, whether true or false, is fairly intelligible, provided, of course, due attention is given to the meaning of the words employed.

(1.) Its meaning.

In the first place, we must carefully distinguish between Person and Substance; this is the key to the whole question. The former has been already considered in Chapters III. and IV., though it must be remembered that this term, like all others, when applied to God, cannot mean exactly the same as it does when applied to man. All we can say is that, on the whole, it seems the least inappropriate word. The latter is a little misleading, since it is not the modern English word substance, but a Latin translation of a Greek word, which would be better rendered by nature or essence.

But though difficult to explain, its meaning is tolerably clear. Take, for instance, though the analogy must not be pressed too far, the case of three men; each is a distinct human person, but they all have a common human nature. This human nature, which may also be called human substance (in its old sense), humanity, or manhood, has of course no existence apart from the men whose nature it is; it is merely that which they each possess in common, and the possession of which makes each of them a man. And hence, any attribute belonging to human nature would belong to each of the three men, so that each would be mortal, each subject to growth, etc. Each would in fact possess the complete human nature, yet together there would not be three human natures, but only one.

Bearing this in mind, let us now turn to the doctrine of the Trinity. This is expressed in vv. 3-6 of the Athanasian Creed as follows:-

3. 'The Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.

4. 'Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.

5. 'For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.

6. 'But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.'

Here, it will be noticed, vv. 5 and 6 give the reasons for v. 4, so that the Godhead in v. 6 is, as we should have expected, the same as the Divine Substance or Nature in v. 4. Thus the meaning is as follows:-

We must worship one God (as to Nature) in Trinity (of Persons) and Trinity (of Persons) in Unity (of Nature); neither confusing the Persons, for each is distinct; nor dividing the Nature, for it is all one.

Thus far there is no intellectual difficulty in the statements of the Creed. We do not mean that there is no difficulty in believing them to be true, or in accurately defining the terms used; but that, as statements, their meaning is quite intelligible.

We now pass on to the following verses which are deductions from this, and show that as each of the three Persons possesses the Divine Nature, all attributes of the Godhead (i.e., of this one Divine Nature) are possessed by each of the three. Each is therefore eternal, and yet there is only one eternal Nature. But this is expressed in a peculiarly short and abrupt manner. No one, of course, supposes that God is Three in the same sense in which He is One, but the Creed does not sufficiently guard against this, perhaps because it never occurred to its author that anyone would think it meant such an obvious absurdity. Moreover, even grammatically the verses are not very clear. For the various terms uncreate, incomprehensible (i.e., boundless, or omnipresent), eternal, almighty, God, and Lord are used as if they were adjectives in the first part of each sentence, and nouns in the latter part.

But we must remember these verses do not stand alone. If they did, they might perhaps be thought unintelligible. But they do not. As just said, they are deductions from the previous statement of the doctrine of the Trinity; and, therefore, they must in all fairness be interpreted so as to agree with that doctrine, not to contradict it. And the previous verses (3-6) show clearly that where three are spoken of, it refers to Persons; and where one is spoken of, it refers to Substance or Nature.

It must however be admitted that the names of these Divine Persons imply some closer union between them than that of merely possessing in common one Divine Nature. For they are not independent names like those of different men or of heathen gods, each of whom might exist separately; but they are all relative names, each implying the others. Thus the Father implies the Son, for how can there be a Father, unless there is a Son (or at least a child)? And of course an Eternal Father implies an Eternal Son, so any idea that the Father must have lived first, as in the case of a human father and son, is out of the question. Similarly the Son implies the Father, and the Spirit implies Him whose Spirit He is. And though these names are no doubt very inadequate; they yet show that the three Persons are of the same Nature, which is the important point.

We conclude then that the Doctrine of the Trinity means the existence of three Divine Persons, each possessing in its completeness the one Divine Nature; and closely united together; though in a manner, which is to us unknown.

(2.) Its credibility.

Having now discussed the meaning of the Christian doctrine, we have next to consider whether it is credible. It must of course be admitted that the doctrine is very mysterious, and though fairly intelligible as a doctrine, is extremely hard to realise (indeed some might say inconceivable) when we try to picture to ourselves what the doctrine actually means. But we must remember that the nature of God is anyhow almost inconceivable, even as simple Theism. We cannot picture to ourselves a Being Who is omnipresent,-in this room, for instance, as well as on distant stars. Nor can we imagine a Being Who is grieved every time we commit sin, for if so, considering the number of people in the world, He must be grieved many thousands of times every second; as well as being glad whenever anyone resists sin, also, let us hope, several thousand times a second. All this may be true, just as the marvels of science-the ether, for instance, which is also omnipresent, and has millions of vibrations every second-may be true, but our minds are quite unable to realise any of them.

Thus, as said in Chapter III., though we have ample means of knowing what God is in His relation to us as our Creator and Judge, yet as to His real nature we know next to nothing. Nor is this surprising when we remember that the only being who in any way resembles God is man; and man's nature, notwithstanding all our opportunities of studying it, still remains a mystery.

Now Christianity does attempt (in its doctrine of the Trinity) to state what God is in Himself, and without any reference to ourselves, or to nature; and that this should be to a great extent inconceivable to our minds seems inevitable. For the nature of God must be beyond human understanding, just as the nature of a man is beyond the understanding of animals; though they may realise what he is to them, in his power or his kindness. And for all we know, Trinity in Unity, like omnipresence, may be one of the unique attributes of God, which cannot be understood (because it cannot be shared) by anyone else. Therefore the mysteriousness of the Christian doctrine is no reason for thinking it incredible.

Nor is it inconsistent with Natural Religion, for though this shows the Unity of God, it is only a unity of outward action. It does not, and cannot tell us what this one God is in Himself, whether, for instance, He exists as one or more Persons. In the same way (if we may without irreverence take a homely illustration) a number of letters might be so extremely alike as to show that they were all written by one man. But this would not tell us what the man was in himself, whether, for instance, he had a free will, as well as a body and mind; or how these were related to one another. Hence Natural Religion can in no way conflict with Christianity.

(3.) Its probability.

But we may go further than this, and say that the Christian doctrine of Three Divine Persons is (when carefully considered) less difficult to believe than the Unitarian doctrine of only One. For this latter leads to the conclusion, either that God must have been a solitary God dwelling alone from all eternity, before the creation of the world; or else that the world itself (or some part of it) must have been eternal, and have formed a kind of companion. And each of these theories has great difficulties. Take for instance the attributes of Power and Wisdom, both of which, as we have seen, must of necessity belong to God. How could a solitary God dwelling alone before the Creation of the world have been able to exercise either His Power or His Wisdom? As far as we can judge, His Power could have produced nothing, His Wisdom could have thought of nothing. He would have been a potential God only, with all His capacities unrealised. And such a view seems quite incredible.

Yet the only alternative-that the world itself is eternal-though it gets over this difficulty, is still inadequate. For as we have seen God possesses moral attributes as well, such as Goodness. And all moral attributes-everything connected with right and wrong-can only be thought of as existing between two persons. We cannot be good to an atom of hydrogen, or unjust to a molecule of water. We can it is true be kind to animals, but this is simply because they resemble personal beings in having a capacity for pleasure and pain. But moral attributes in their highest perfection can only exist between two persons. Therefore as the eternal God possesses, and must always have possessed, such attributes, it seems to require some other eternal Person.

The argument is perhaps a difficult one to follow, but a single example will make it plain. Take the attribute of love. This requires at least two persons-one to love, the other to be loved. Therefore if love has always been one of God's attributes, there must always have been some other person to be loved. And the idea that God might have been eternally creating persons, like men or angels, as objects of His love, though perhaps attractive, is still inadequate. For love in its perfection can only exist between two beings of the same nature. A man cannot love his dog, in the same way that he can love his son. In short, personality, involving as it does moral attributes like love, implies fellowship, or the existence of other and similar persons.

Yet, when we think of the meaning of the term God, His omnipresence and omnipotence, it seems impossible that there can be more than one. We must then believe in at least two Eternal and Divine Persons, yet in but one God; and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in Unity, with all its difficulties, still seems the least difficult explanation.

But this is not all, for Natural Religion itself leads us to look upon God in three distinct ways, which correspond to the three chief arguments for His existence. (Chaps. I., II., and V.) Thus we may think of Him as the Eternal, Self-Existent One, altogether independent of the world-the All-Powerful First Cause required to account for it. Or we may think of Him in His relation to the world, as its Maker and Evolver, working everywhere, in everything and through everything,-the All-Wise Designer required by nature. Or we may think of Him in His relation to ourselves as a Spirit holding intercourse with our spirits, and telling us what is right-the All-Good Moral God required by conscience. And how well this agrees with the Christian doctrine scarcely needs pointing out; the Father the Source of all, the Son by Whom all things were made, and the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits; and yet not three Gods, but one God.

On the whole, then, we decide that the Doctrine of the Trinity is certainly credible and perhaps even probable. For to put it shortly, Nature forces us to believe in a personal God; yet, when we reflect on the subject, the idea of a personal God, Who is only one Person, seems scarcely tenable; since (as said above) personality implies fellowship.

(B.) The Incarnation.

We next come to the doctrine of the Incarnation; which however is so clearly stated in the Athanasian Creed, that its meaning is quite plain. God the Son, we are told, the second Person of the Trinity, was pleased to become Man and to be born of the Virgin Mary, so that He is now both God and Man. He is God (from all eternity) of the Substance or Nature of His Divine Father, and Man (since the Incarnation) of the Substance or Nature of His human Mother. He is thus complete God and complete Man; equal to the Father in regard to His Godhead, for He is of the same Nature; and inferior to the Father, in regard to His Manhood, for human nature must be inferior to the Divine. Moreover, though He possesses these two Natures, they are not changed one into the other, or confused together; but each remains distinct, though both are united in His One Person. This is in brief the doctrine of the Incarnation; and we will first consider its difficulties, then its motive, and lastly its historical position.

(1.) Its difficulties.

The first of these is that the Incarnation would be a change in the existence of God, Who is the changeless One. He, it is urged, is always the same, while an Incarnation would imply that at some particular time and place a momentous change occurred, and for ever afterwards God became different from what He had been for ever before.

This is no doubt a serious difficulty, but it must not be exaggerated. For an Incarnation would not, strictly speaking, involve any change in the Divine Nature itself. God the Son remained completely and entirely God all the time, He was not (as just said) in any way changed into a man, only He united to Himself a human nature as well. And perhaps if we knew more about the nature of God, and also about that of man (who we must remember was made to some extent in God's image, and this perhaps with a view to the Incarnation), we should see that it was just as natural for God to become Man, as it was for God to create man. We have really nothing to argue from. An Incarnation seems improbable, and that is all we can say.

But if it took place at all, there is nothing surprising in this planet being the one chosen for it. Indeed, as far as we know, it is the only one that could be chosen, since it is the only one which contains personal beings in whom God could become incarnate. Of course other planets may contain such beings; but as said before (Chapter V.) this is only a conjecture, and in the light of recent investigations not a very probable one. While if they do contain such beings, these may not have sinned, in which case our little world, with its erring inhabitants, would be like the lost sheep in the parable, the only one which the Ruler of the Universe had come to save.

The second difficulty is, that the Incarnation would lead to a compound Being, who is both Divine and human at the same time, and this is often thought to be incredible. But here the answer is obvious, and is suggested by the Creed itself. Man himself is a compound being; he is the union of a material body and an immaterial spirit, in a single person. His spirit is in fact incarnate in his body. We cannot explain it, but so it is. And the Incarnation in which Christians believe is the union of the Divine Nature and the human nature in a single Person. Both appear equally improbable, and equally inconceivable to our minds, if we try and think out all that they involve; but as the one is actually true, the other is certainly not incredible.

The third and last of these difficulties refers to the miraculous Virgin-birth. But if we admit the possibility of an Incarnation, no method of bringing it about can be pronounced incredible. The event, if true, is necessarily unique, and cannot be supposed to come under the ordinary laws of nature. For it was not the birth of a new being (as in the case of ordinary men), but an already existing Being entering into new conditions. And we have no experience of this whatever. Indeed, that a child born in the usual way should be the Eternal God, is just as miraculous, and just as far removed from our experience, as if He were born in any other way. While considering that one object of the Incarnation was to promote moral virtues in man, such as purity, the virgin-birth was most suitable, and formed an appropriate beginning for a sinless life.

(2.) Its motive.

But we now come to a more important point, for the Incarnation, if true, must have been the most momentous event in the world's history; and can we even imagine a sufficient reason for it? God we may be sure does not act without motives, and what adequate motive can be suggested for the Incarnation? Now the alleged motive, indeed the very foundation of Christianity, is that God loves man; and as a natural consequence wishes man to love Him. Is this then incredible, or even improbable? Certainly not, for several reasons.

To begin with, as we have already shown, God is a Personal and Moral Being, Who cares for the welfare of His creatures, more especially for man. And this, allowing for the imperfection of human language, may be described as God's loving man, since disinterested love for another cannot be thought an unworthy attribute to ascribe to God. On the other hand, man is also a personal and moral being, able to some extent to love God in return. And to this must be added the fact that man, at least some men, do not seem altogether unworthy of God's love, while we certainly do not know of any other being who is more worthy of it.

Moreover, considering the admitted resemblance between God and man, the analogy of human parents loving their children is not inappropriate. Indeed it is specially suitable, since here also we have a relationship between two personal and moral beings, one of whom is the producer (though not in this case the creator) of the other. And human parents often love their children intensely, and will sometimes even die for them; while, as a rule, the better the parents are the more they love their children, and this in spite of the children having many faults. Is it, then, unlikely that the Creator may love His children also, and that human love may be only a reflection of this-another instance of how man was made in the image of God? The evidence we have may be slight, but it all points the same way.

Now, if it be admitted that God loves man, we have plainly no means of estimating the extent of this love. But by comparing the other attributes of God, such as His wisdom and His power, with the similar attributes of man, we should expect God's love to be infinitely greater than any human love; so great indeed that He would be willing to make any sacrifice in order to gain what is the object in all love, that it should be returned. Might not then God's love induce Him to become man, so that He might the more easily win man's love?

And we must remember that man's love, like his will, is free. Compulsory love is in the nature of things impossible. A man can only love, what he can if he chooses hate. Therefore God cannot force man to love Him, He can only induce him; and how can He do this better than by an Incarnation? For it would show, as nothing else could show, that God's love is a self-sacrificing love; and this is the highest form of love. Indeed, if it were not so, in other words, if God's love cost Him nothing, it would be inferior in this respect to that of many men. But if, on the other hand, God's love involved self-sacrifice;-if it led to Calvary-then it is the highest possible form of love. And then we see that God's attributes are all, so to speak, on the same scale; and His Goodness is as far above any human goodness, as the Power which rules the universe is above any human power; or the Wisdom which designed all nature is above any human wisdom. Hence, if the Incarnation still seems inconceivable, may it not be simply because the love of God, like His other attributes, is so inconceivably greater than anything we can imagine?

Moreover a self-sacrificing love is the form, which is most likely to lead to its being returned. And experience proves that this has actually been the case. The condescending love of Christ in His life, and still more in His death, forms an overpowering motive which, when once realised, has always been irresistible.

But more than this. Not only does the Incarnation afford the strongest possible motive for man to love God, but it enables him to do so in a way which nothing else could. Man, it is true, often longs for some means of intercourse, or communion with his Maker, yet this seems impossible. The gulf which separates the Creator from the creature is infinite, and can never be bridged over by man, or even by an angel, or other intermediate being. For a bridge must

of necessity touch both sides; so if the gulf is to be bridged at all, it can only be by One Who is at the same time both God and Man. Thus the Incarnation brings God, if we may use the expression, within man's reach, so that the latter has no mere abstract and invisible Being to love, but a definite Person, Whose Character he can appreciate, and Whose conduct he can to some extent follow. In short, the Incarnation provides man with a worthy Being for his love and devotion, yet with a Being Whom he can partly at least understand and partly imitate. And he is thus able to become in a still truer sense a child of God; or, as it is commonly expressed, God became Man in order that man might become as far as possible, like God.

And this brings us to another aspect of the Incarnation. Christ's life was meant to be an example to man, and it is clear that a perfect example could only be given by a Being Who is both God and Man. For God alone is above human imitation, and even the best of men have many faults; so that from the nature of the case, Christ, and Christ alone, can provide us with a perfect example, for being Man He is capable of imitation, and being God He is worthy of it.

Now what follows from this? If Christ's life was meant to be an example to man, it was essential that it should be one of suffering, or the example would have lost more than half its value. Man does not want to be shown how to live in prosperity, but how to live in adversity, and how to suffer patiently. The desertion of friends, the malice of enemies, and a cruel death are the occasional lot of mankind. They are perhaps the hardest things a man has to bear in this world, and they have often had to be borne by the followers of Christ. Is it incredible, then, that He should have given them an example of the perfect way of doing so; gently rebuking His friends, praying for His murderers, and acting throughout as only a perfect man could act? No doubt such a life and death seem at first sight degrading to the Deity. But strictly speaking, suffering, if borne voluntarily and for the benefit of others, is not degrading; especially if the benefit could not be obtained in any other way.

When we consider all this, it is plain that many reasons can be given for the Incarnation. Of course it may be replied that they are not adequate; but we have no means of knowing whether God would consider them adequate or not. His ideas are not like ours; for what adequate motive can we suggest for His creating man at all? Yet He has done so. And having created him and given him free will, and man having misused his freedom, all of which is admitted, then that God should endeavour to restore man cannot be thought incredible. Indeed it seems almost due to Himself that He should try and prevent His noblest work from being a failure. And if in addition to this God loves man still, in spite of his sins, then some intervention on his account seems almost probable.

(3.) Its historical position.

It may still be objected that if the above reasons are really sufficient to account for the Incarnation, it ought to have taken place near the commencement of man's history. And no doubt when we contemplate the great antiquity of man, this often seems a difficulty. But we have very little to judge by, and that little does not support the objection. For in nature God seems always to work by the slow and tedious process of evolution, not attaining what He wanted all at once, but by gradual development. Therefore, if He revealed Himself to man, we should expect it to be by the same method. At first it would be indistinctly, as in Natural Religion; which dates back to pre-historic times, since the burial customs show a belief in a future life. Then it would be more clearly, as in the Jewish Religion; and finally it might be by becoming Man Himself, as in the Christian Religion.

According to Christianity, the whole previous history of the world was a preparation for the Incarnation. But only when the preparation was complete, when the fullness of the time came, as St. Paul expresses it,[177] did it take place. And it has certainly proved, as we should have expected, an epoch-making event. In all probability the history of the world will always be considered relatively to it in years B.C. and A.D. And very possibly it has a significance far beyond man or even this planet. For we must remember, man is not merely a link in a series of created beings indefinitely improving, but, as shown in Chapter V., he is the end of the series, the last stage in evolution, the highest organised being that will ever appear on this planet, or, as far as we know, on any planet.

[177] Gal. 4. 4.

Therefore, man's rank in the universe is not affected by the insignificance of this earth. Where else shall we find a personal being with attributes superior to those of man? Where else indeed shall we find a personal being at all? The only answer Science can give is nowhere. But if so, man's position in the universe is one of unique pre-eminence. And it is this inherent greatness of man, as it has been called, which justifies the Incarnation. He is worthy that Thou should'st do this for him.

Moreover when we consider God the Son as the Divine Person who is specially immanent in nature, and who has been evolving the universe through countless ages from its original matter into higher and higher forms of life, there seems a special fitness in its leading up to such a climax as the Incarnation. For then by becoming Man, He united Himself with matter in its highest and most perfect form. Thus the Incarnation, like the Nebula theory in astronomy, or the process of Evolution, if once accepted, throws a new light on the entire universe; and it has thus a grandeur and impressiveness about it, which to some minds is very attractive. On the whole, then, we decide that the doctrine is certainly not incredible, though it no doubt seems improbable.

(C.) The Atonement.

We pass on now to the doctrine of the Atonement, which is that Christ's death was in some sense a sacrifice for sin, and thus reconciled (or made 'at-one') God the Father and sinful man. And though not actually stated in the Creeds, it is implied in the words, Was crucified also for us, and Who suffered for our salvation.

The chief difficulty is of course on moral grounds. The idea of atonement, it is said, or of one man being made to suffer as a substitute for another, and thus appeasing the Deity, was well-nigh universal in early times, and is so still among savage nations. Such a sacrifice, however, is a great injustice to the victim; it ascribes an unworthy character to God, as a Judge, Who can be satisfied with the punishment of an innocent man in place of the guilty one; and it has a bad influence on the sinner, allowing him to sin on with impunity, provided he can find another substitute when needed.

The answer to this difficulty is, that it takes no account of the most important part of the Christian doctrine, which is the willingness of the Victim. According to Christianity, Christ was a willing Sacrifice, Who freely laid down His life;[178] while the human sacrifices just alluded to were not willing sacrifices, since the victims had no option in the matter. And, as we shall see, this alters the case completely both in regard to the victim himself, the judge, and the sinner.

[178] E.g., John 10. 18.

(1.) As to the Victim.

It is plain that his willingness does away with the injustice altogether. There is no injustice in accepting a volunteer for any painful office, provided he thoroughly knows what he is doing, for he need not undertake it unless he likes. If, on the other hand, we deny the voluntary and sacrificial character of Christ's death, and regard Him as merely a good man, then there certainly was injustice-and very great injustice too, that such a noble life should have ended in such a shameful death.

(2.) As to the Judge.

Next as to the Judge. It will be seen that a willing sacrifice, though it does not satisfy his justice, makes a strong appeal to his mercy; at least it would do so in human cases. Suppose for instance a judge had before him a criminal who well deserved to be punished, but a good man, perhaps the judge's own son, came forward, and not only interceded for the prisoner, but was so devotedly attached to him as to offer to bear his punishment (pay his fine, for instance), this would certainly influence the judge in his favour. It would show that he was not so hopelessly bad after all. Mercy and justice are thus both facts of human nature; and it is also a fact of human nature, that the voluntary suffering, or willingness to suffer, of a good man for a criminal whom he deeply loves, does incline man to mercy rather than justice.

Now, have we any reason for thinking that God also combines, in their highest forms, these two attributes of mercy and justice? Certainly we have; for, as shown in Chapter V., the goodness of God includes both beneficence and righteousness; and these general terms, when applied to the case of judging sinners, closely correspond to mercy and justice. God, as we have seen, combines both, and both are required by the Christian doctrine. Mercy alone would have forgiven men without any atonement; justice alone would not have forgiven them at all. But God is both merciful and just, and therefore the idea that voluntary atonement might incline Him to mercy rather than justice does not seem incredible.

And this is precisely the Christian doctrine. The mercy of God the Father is obtained for sinful man by Christ's generous sacrifice of Himself on man's behalf; so that, to put it shortly, God forgives sins for Christ's sake. And it should be noticed, the idea of sins being forgiven which occurs all through the New Testament, and is alluded to in the Apostles' Creed, shows that Christ's Atonement was not that of a mere substitute, for then no forgiveness would have been necessary. If, for example, I owe a man a sum of money, and a friend pays it for me, I do not ask the man to forgive me the debt; I have no need of any forgiveness. But if, instead of paying it, he merely intercedes for me, then the man may forgive me the debt for my friend's sake.

And in this way, though Christ did not, strictly speaking, bear man's punishment (which would have been eternal separation from God), His sufferings and death may yet have procured man's pardon; He suffered on our behalf, though not in our stead. And some Atonement was certainly necessary to show God's hatred for sin, and to prevent His Character from being misunderstood in this respect. And it probably would have been so, if men had been forgiven without any Atonement, when they might have thought that sin was not such a very serious affair after all.

(3.) As to the sinner.

Lastly, the willingness of the victim affects the sinner also. For if the changed attitude of the judge is due, not to his justice being satisfied, but to his mercy being appealed to, this is plainly conditional on a moral change in the sinner himself. A good man suffering for a criminal would not alter our feelings towards him, if he still chose to remain a criminal. And this exactly agrees with the Christian doctrine, which is that sinners cannot expect to avail themselves of Christ's Atonement if they wilfully continue in sin; so that repentance is a necessary condition of forgiveness. Therefore instead of having a bad influence on the sinners themselves; it has precisely the opposite effect.

And what we should thus expect theoretically has been amply confirmed by experience. No one will deny that Christians in all ages have been devotedly attached to the doctrine of the Atonement. They have asserted that it is the cause of all their joy in this world, and all their hope for the next. Yet, so far from having had a bad influence, it has led them to the most noble and self-sacrificing lives. It has saved them from sin, and not only the penalties of sin, and this is exactly what was required. The greatness of man's sin, and the misery it causes in the world, are but too evident, apart from Christianity. Man is indeed both the glory and the scandal of the universe-the glory in what he was evidently intended to be, and the scandal in what, through sin, he actually became. And the Atonement was a 'vast remedy for this vast evil.' And if we admit the end, that man had to be redeemed from sin, impressed with the guilt of sin, and helped to resist sin; we cannot deny the appropriateness of the means, which, as a matter of fact, has so often brought it about.

This completes a brief examination of the moral difficulties connected with the Atonement; and it is clear that the willingness of the Victim makes the whole difference, whether we regard them as referring to the Victim himself, the Judge, or the sinner.

(D.) The Resurrection.

The last great Christian doctrine is that of the Resurrection. According to Christianity, all men are to rise again, with their bodies partly changed and rendered incorruptible; and the Resurrection of Christ's Body was both a pledge of this, and also to some extent an example of what a risen body would be like. He was thus, as the Bible says, the firstborn from the dead.[179] Now this word firstborn implies, to begin with, that none had been so born before, the cases of Lazarus, etc., being those of resuscitation and not resurrection; they lived again to die again, and their bodies were unchanged. And it implies, secondly, that others would be so born afterwards, so that our risen bodies will resemble His. The Resurrection of Christ is thus represented not as something altogether exceptional and unique, but rather as the first instance of what will one day be the universal rule. It shows us the last stage in man's long development, what he is intended to become when he is at length perfected. We will therefore consider first Christ's Resurrection, and then man's resurrection.

[179] Col. 1. 18; Rev. 1. 5; 1 Cor. 15. 20; Acts. 26. 23.

(1.) Christ's Resurrection.

Now according to the Gospels, Christ's Risen Body combined material and immaterial properties in a remarkable manner. Thus He could be touched and eat food, and yet apparently pass through closed doors and vanish at pleasure; and this is often thought to be incredible. But strictly speaking it is not incredible; since no material substance (a door or anything else) is solid. There are always spaces between the molecules; so that for one such body to pass through another is no more difficult to imagine, than for one regiment to march through another on parade. And if a regiment contained anything like as many men, as there are molecules in a door, it would probably look just as solid.

Moreover Christ's risen Body, though possessing some material properties, is represented to have been spiritual as well. And the nearest approach to a spiritual substance of which we have any scientific knowledge is the ether, and this also seems to combine material and immaterial properties, being in some respects more like a solid than a gas. Yet it can pass through all material substances; and this certainly prevents us from saying that it is incredible that Christ's spiritual Body should pass through closed doors.

Indeed for all we know, it may be one of the properties of spiritual beings, that they can pass through material substances (just as the X-rays can) and be generally invisible; yet be able, if they wish, to assume some of the properties of matter, such as becoming visible or audible. In fact, unless they were able to do this, it is hard to see how they could manifest themselves at all. And a slight alteration in the waves of light coming from a body would make it visible or not to the human eye. And it is out of the question to say that God-the Omnipotent One-could not produce such a change in a spiritual body. While for such a body to become tangible, or to take food, is not really more wonderful (though it seems so) than for it to become visible or audible; since when once we pass the boundary between the natural and the supernatural everything is mysterious.

It may of course be replied that though all this is not perhaps incredible, it is still most improbable; and no doubt it is. But what then? We have no adequate means of judging, for the fact, if true, is, up to the present, unique. It implies a new mode of existence which is neither spiritual nor material, though possessing some of the properties of each, and of which we have no experience whatever. So we are naturally unable to understand it. But assuming the Resurrection of Christ to be otherwise credible, as it certainly is if we admit His Incarnation and Death, we cannot call it incredible, merely because the properties of His risen Body are said to be different from those of ordinary human bodies, and in some respects to resemble those of spirits. It is in fact only what we should expect.

(2.) Man's Resurrection.

Next as to man's resurrection. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body must not be confused with that of the immortality of the spirit, discussed in Chapter VI., which is common to many religions, and is certainly not improbable. But two objections may be made to the resurrection of the body.

The first is that it is impossible, since the human body decomposes after death, and its molecules may afterwards form a part of other bodies; so, if all men were to rise again at the same time, those molecules would have to be in two places at once. But the fallacy here is obvious, for the molecules composing a man's body are continually changing during life, and it is probable that every one of them is changed in a few years; yet the identity of the body is not destroyed. This identity depends not on the identity of the molecules, but on their relative position and numbers so that a man's body in this respect is like a whirlpool in a stream, the water composing which is continually changing, though the whirlpool itself remains. Therefore the resurrection need not be a resurrection of relics, as it is sometimes called. No doubt in the case of Christ it was so, and perhaps it will be so in the case of some Christians, only it need not be so; and this removes at once the apparent impossibility of the doctrine.

Secondly, it may still be objected that the doctrine is extremely improbable. And no doubt it seems so. But once more we have no adequate means of judging. Apart from experience, how very unlikely it would be that a seed when buried in the ground should develop into a plant; or that plants and trees, after being apparently dead all through the winter, should blossom again in the spring. Thus everything connected with life is so mysterious that we can decide nothing except by experience. And therefore we cannot say what may, or may not happen in some future state, of which we have no experience whatever. Indeed, if man's spirit is immortal, the fact that it is associated with a body during its life on this earth makes it not unlikely that it will be associated with a body of some kind during its future life. And that this body should be partly spiritual, and so resemble Christ's risen body, is again only what we should expect. Thus, on the whole, the doctrine of the Resurrection is certainly credible.

(E.) Conclusion.

We have now examined the four great doctrines of Christianity, the others either following directly from these, or not presenting any difficulty. And though, as we have shown, not one of these doctrines can be pronounced incredible, yet some of them, especially those of the Incarnation and the Atonement, certainly seem improbable. This must be fully and freely admitted. At the same time, it is only fair to remember that this improbability is distinctly lessened by the three following considerations.

First, in regard to all these doctrines we have no adequate means of deciding what is or is not probable. Reason cannot judge where it has nothing to judge by; and apart from Christianity itself, we know next to nothing as to what was God's object in creating man. If, then, these doctrines are true, their truth depends not on reason, but on revelation. All reason can do is to examine most carefully the evidence in favour of the alleged revelation. Of this we should expect it to be able to judge, but not of the doctrines themselves. We are hence in a region where we cannot trust to our own sense of the fitness of things; and therefore the Christian doctrines must not be condemned merely because we think them contrary to our reason. Moreover many thoughtful men (including Agnostics) do not consider them so. Thus the late Professor Huxley once wrote, 'I have not the slightest objection to offer a priori to all the propositions of the Three Creeds. The mysteries of the Church are child's play compared with the mysteries of Nature.'[180]

[180] Quoted with his permission in Bishop Gore's Bampton Lectures, 1891, p. 247, 1898 edition.

And this brings us to the next point, which is that many other facts which are actually true appear equally improbable at first sight; such, for instance, as the existence of the ether, or the growth of plants. Apart from experience, what an overwhelming argument could be made out against such facts as these. Yet they concern subjects which are to a great extent within our comprehension, while Christianity has to do with the nature and character of a God Who is admittedly beyond our comprehension. May not the difficulties in both cases, but especially in regard to the latter, be due to our ignorance only? The Christian doctrines, we must remember, do not claim to have been revealed in all their bearings, but only in so far as they concern ourselves.

Thirdly, it should be noticed that, though individually these doctrines may seem improbable, yet, when considered as a whole, as in all fairness they ought to be, there is a complete harmony between them. Their improbability is not cumulative. On the contrary, one often helps to explain the difficulties of another. This has been recognised by most writers, including many who can scarcely be called theologians. Thus the great Napoleon is reported to have said, 'If once the Divine character of Christ is admitted, Christian doctrine exhibits the precision and clearness of algebra; so that we are struck with admiration at its scientific connection and unity.'[181]

[181] Beauterne, Sentiment de Napoleon 1er sur le Christianisme, new edition, Paris, 1864, p. 110.

In conclusion, it must be again pointed out that we are only now considering the credibility of Christianity, and not trying to make out that it appears a probable religion, at first sight, which it plainly does not. Only its improbability is not so extremely great as to make it useless to consider the evidence in its favour. This is especially so when we remember that this improbability must have seemed far greater when Christianity was first preached than it does now, when we are so accustomed to the religion. Yet, as a matter of fact, the evidence in its favour did outweigh every difficulty, and finally convince the civilised world. What this evidence is we proceed to inquire.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares