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The Jesus of History

Page 35

Chapter VII

Jesus' Teaching Upon Sin

"For clear-thinking ethical natures," writes a modern scholar, "for natures such as those of Jesus and St. Paul, it is a downright necessity to separate heaven and hell as distinctly as possible. It is only ethically worthless speculations that have always tried to minimize this distinction. Carlyle is an instance in our times of how men even to-day once more enthusiastically welcome the conception of hell as soon as the distinction between good and bad becomes all-important to them."[26]

Here in strong terms a challenge is put to many of our current ideas. Is not this to revert to an outworn view of the Christian religion—to reassert its dark side, better forgotten, all the horrible emphasis on sin and its consequences introduced into the sunny teaching of Jesus by Paul of Tarsus, and alien to it? Before we answer this question in any direct way, it is worth while to realize for how many of the real thinkers, and the great teachers of mankind, this distinction between good and evil has been fundamental. They have not invented it as a theory on which to base religion, but they have found it in human life, one and all of them. If Walt Whitman or Swami Vivekananda overlook the difference between virtue and vice, and do honour to the courtesan, it simply means that they are bad thinkers, bad observers. The deeper minds see more clearly and escape the confusion into which the slight and quick, the sentimental, hurl themselves. Above all, when God in any degree grows real to a man, when a man seriously gives himself not to some mere vague "contemplation" of God but to the earnest study of God's ways in human affairs, and of God's laws and their working, the great contrasts in men's responses to God's rule become luminous.

When God matters to a man, all life shows the result. Good and bad, right and wrong stand out clear as the contrast between light and darkness—they cannot be mistaken, and they matter—and matter for ever. They are no concern of a moment. Action makes character; and, until the action is undone again, the effect on character is not undone. Right and wrong are of eternal significance now in virtue of the reality of God.

Gautama Buddha, for instance, and the greater Hindu thinkers, in their doctrine of Karma, have taught a significance inherent in good and evil, which we can only not call boundless. Buddha did this without any great consciousness of God; and many Indian thinkers have so emphasized the doctrine that it has taken all the stress laid on "Bhakti" by Ramanuja and others to restore to life a perspective or a balance, however it should be described, that will save men from utter despair. Nor is it Eastern thinkers only who have taught men the reality of heaven and hell. The poetry of Aeschylus is full of his great realization of the nexus between act and outcome. With all the humour and charm there is in Plato, we cannot escape his tremendous teaching on the age-long consequences of good and evil in a cosmos ordered by God. Carlyle, in our own days, realized the same thing—he learnt it no doubt from his mother; and learnt it again in London. In Mrs. Austen's drawing-room, with "Sidney Smith guffawing," and "other people prating, jargoning, to me through these thin cobwebs Death and Eternity sate glaring." "How will this look in the Universe," he asks, "and before the Creator of Man?" When someone in his old age challenged him with the question, "Who will be judge?"—(it is curious how every sapient inanity strikes, as on an original idea, on the notion that opinions differ, and therefore—apparently, if their thought has any consequence—are as good one as another)—Who will be judge? "Hell fire will be judge," said Carlyle, "God Almighty will be the judge now and always." There is a gulf between good and evil, and each is inexorably fertile of consequence. There is no escaping the issue of moral choice. That is the conclusion of men who have handled human experience in a serious spirit. As physical laws are deducible from the reactions of matter and force, and are found to be uniform and inevitable, fundamental in the nature of matter and force, so clear-thinking men in the course of ages have deduced moral laws from their observation of human nature, laws as uniform, inevitable and fundamental. In neither case has it been that men invented or imagined the laws; in both cases it has been genuine discovery of what was already existent and operative, and often the discovery has involved surprise.