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Man and the Spiritual World


The Spiritual World—The Bible's Testimony.

In the foregoing pages we have endeavoured to show that Holy Scripture, supported by independent testimony, most clearly teaches that man, although living for a while on a physical earth, is not on that account merely a physical creature. At the basis of his being he is spirit, and that spirit, whether in the earth-life or the life that will follow, lives no vague and abstract existence, but is enclosed in its own spirit-body, from which it is never dissevered. Thus, a man is no less a man without his earthly tenement than with it.

Physical death does not terminate nor even suspend his existence; nor does it destroy or impair his mind and faculties, except those that pertain to his external coarse and temporary envelope. Death detaches him from a close association with the physical, but only to launch him more completely into the Spiritual. Through that gateway he passes to a higher development of life. He becomes then, in a degree impossible to him in this life, en rapport with a great Spiritual World.

The question naturally suggests itself— Where is that World?

All sorts of curious, not to say grotesque, ideas have prevailed in the past as to its whereabouts. To enumerate them at length would fill a volume. The Jews (as has been already mentioned) thought that the Spiritual World into which persons pass at death was located somewhere in the bowels of the earth. We find a survival of this idea in the words of our creed, 'He descended into Hell' (i.e., Hades, the abode of the departed).

Several writers of note have pointed out that this word 'descended' gives an indication of the mental attitude of the ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans, and also of the Christians of the Middle and later ages, in regard to the life beyond the grave. They viewed it rather as a descent than an ascent. To them, in whatever way they might picture a future Heaven, the next life was not an advance upon the present one, but the opposite. At best, it was only a sort of half-life; a going down into an objectionable under-world of gloom and shadows. That thought has dominated Roman Christianity more or less, from the fourth or fifth century until the present time, and it has only been absent from Protestant theology because Protestantism has all but wholly ignored the existence of an Intermediate World.

In the Middle Ages, the idea found its fullest expression in that truly marvellous, but (as far as doctrine is concerned) terribly blasphemous poem of Dante.

Seeing that a powerful church has countenanced such awful caricature of the Spiritual World and God's dealings as to it, one ceases to wonder that many have not believed in the existence of that World, and in a good God Himself. Surely we have here an indirect proof that the Christian religion is truth. Had it not been so, it would long ago have been smothered by the doctrinal monstrosities that men have piled upon it. But it must be remembered that the erroneous ideas entertained about the Spiritual World were based upon altogether wrong ideas of the physical universe. The scholars and theologians of the Middle Ages adopted the Ptolemaic theory, and supposed that the earth was the chief spot of the universe; the centre of gravity, and the only spot that was at rest.

During the last four hundred years, the Ptolemaic theory has been displaced by the Copernican. We of to-day count our earth as no more than a tiny speck in a vast universe of matter.

This change of theory has revolutionised the ideas of thoughtful men as to the whereabouts of the World of Spirit. No longer is it possible to assign it a little circumscribed place, somewhere in the interior of a small planet, out of a vast family of mighty suns and earths. Shocking as it may appear to a good many present-day Christians, who seem to be enamoured of Mediæval thought and practice, we venture to say that it seems a pity that the Apostles' Creed does not declare the glorious fact that the loving Saviour visited the realm of the departed, in a better way than it does.

When we get out of the atmosphere of Mediæval theology, which has added to, and distorted so much the truth of God, we come at once into contact with a far more healthy and sensible tone of thought in respect to the Spirit-World. This is notably the case as to the early Eastern Church. One has but to read the writings of the early Eastern Fathers, to see how immeasurably better and grander were their conceptions of God and of a Life Beyond than the conceptions of later Western Fathers of the Church, from Augustine downward.

To the former, the Spirit-World was a world to be desired. Like St Paul, they seemed convinced that 'to die is gain' (Phil. i. 21 v.). It was a world whose characteristics are brightness and advancement; a world pregnant with infinite possibilities for the human race. To the latter, it was a world of gloom, upon entering which the destiny of everybody was irrevocably fixed; at whose portals nine-tenths of mankind must abandon hope; and from whose recesses came, to the ears of credulity, the groans of distressed Christians in Purgatory, and the regrets that an earthly life had been left behind.

What, we ask, can be more suggestive than the fact that the Western Church has taught, and still teaches that her sons and daughters should be prayed out of the pain and wretchedness of the Spiritual!

If we pursue our inquiries to the still earlier ages of Christian thought, we find the Spirit-World regarded, not in accordance with Western but Eastern ideas.

To the Post-Apostolic Church, life after death was no gloomy and dreadful experience, which (as in later ages of the Church) had to be symbolised by draping the altars and vesting the priests in black, and adopting all the hideous and pagan paraphernalia of despair. The World Beyond, to them, was a bright and happy place; an advance upon the earthly life.

One thing, however, must strike us in regard to the idea of that age—the Spiritual World was thought to be very far away.

The inscriptions to be found in the catacombs of Rome—those dark caverns in which the early Christians secretly worshipped, and found a resting-place for their martyred bodies—bear witness to this. Here is a specimen of many epitaphs, 'In Christ, Alexander is not dead, but lives beyond the stars, and his body rests in this tomb.'

We come, now, to the idea that at present prevails in regard to the Spirit-World, and we find it, in spite of a lately-revived veneration for all that is Mediæval, more closely allied to the Eastern and early Christian than to the Western idea. Although there are a considerable number of persons in the Church of England, who tack their faith to the pronouncements of the Church teachers of the middle centuries, and think it hardly possible that the Fathers could make a mistake, yet, I suppose, it would be difficult to find any intelligent man who imagines that those Fathers were right in endorsing Dante's idea of the Life Beyond. The advance of true science, which can never be hostile to the true spiritual, has made it absurd for anyone to believe that the great majority of the departed— earth's millions of millions who have lived and died— are pent up in fiery subterranean chambers in the heart of this planet. We have discarded the idea, once and for all, as many other unworthy Mediæval ideas will have to be discarded, in order that Christianity may hold the hearts and minds of thoughtful men.

Further, the present-day idea of the Spiritual World (as we have said) is closely allied to the idea of the early Eastern Church and the Post-Apostolic Church.

However silent on the subject most of the preachers may be, we cannot gainsay the fact that outside the pulpit and the religious literature of the conventional type, the ideas set forth in a variety of ways by cultured men and women go to show that they are dissatisfied with the ordinary representation of the World Beyond, and are getting to regard it as a World of light, progress and possibility. In this respect we are fast coming into touch with the brighter and more hopeful teaching of the early Eastern Fathers. Those men dared to believe in, and openly proclaim such goodness in God, such triumphs for Christ, such hope, such recovery of lost sheep after death, as would have a century ago made the hair of Western divines—Anglican, Roman and Nonconformist—stand on end in orthodox horror.

But when we have noted this much needed advance of the present age towards a worthier and more God-honouring conception of the World into which we all must go, it cannot be denied that, among the bulk of Christian people, the idea of the followers of Christ persecuted by the Roman emperors still lingers. 'Alexander is not dead, but lives beyond the stars'

Yes, the general idea is a very vague and inadequate one. Those words just quoted exactly voice the belief of most persons as to the whereabouts of the Spiritual World. They think of it as a certain fixed locality, 'far, far away,' in a remote and mysterious corner of space; a 'happy land' for some, a very unhappy land for others; but still, very, very far away. The mourner looks up through his tears at the stars (as probably the early Christians did) as though he would fix his gaze upon a spot in infinity where his dear one is most likely to be. 'Far, far away!' Yes, so far, that a return of the dear one is just the event thought to be impossible. The Bible may declare the opposite, but its statements are calmly ignored, or explained away, and a line from Shakespeare is strangely accepted as proof that the World Beyond is 'a country from whose bourne no traveller returns.'

It is to be regretted that this 'far, far away' idea is still entertained by many. It creates an imagined gulf between us and the Spiritual Universe; it minimises our chances of rightly estimating what we are; it adds bitterness to the pang of separation; it detracts from the comfort that we might draw from the Gospel of Christ; it leaves behind the greater part of 'the sting of death,' and lastly, it obscures a glorious truth disclosed in the Word of God.

To that Word we turn for the answer, 'Where is the Spiritual world?'

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Other Books by Rev. Chambers:

"Thoughts of the Spiritual" (1905 American Edition)
"Problems of the Spiritual" (1907 UK Edition)

Rev. Arthur Chambers Returns From "Death" To Speak Through The Zodiac Circle
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