THE stout rag rug on the floor of the long living room was padded beneath with a generous supply of straw — a comfortable place for a boy on a winter’s night to stretch out and enjoy the heat from the wood fire.
It was Sunday evening. The horses had been given their supper of timothy hay, the eggs had been gathered, the cows milked, the henhouse door closed, the lambs had been carefully shut in their shed, and the wood box piled high with firewood.
The family had assembled for the one carefree evening of the week. Father sat in his rocking chair. The older children were sitting around the table. Mother was reading aloud from a book lent by the district school-teacher. I was the boy on the rug in front of the fire. A pan of popcorn and apples was close at hand. I was enjoying the evening. Mother’s reading was music to me; I loved to hear her voice. But as the hands of the old wooden-wheeled clock crept toward nine I could no longer conceal my sleepiness. Mother, observing this, reached for the Bible, the signal that the evening’s entertainment was about to close.
From my position on the rug in front of the fire I had heard her read from the Bible Sunday evenings ever since I could remember. Here I had seen Adam created and Cain kill his brother. I had grieved with Jacob for his seven long years’ work on a farm only to be given the wrong wife. I had been sold with Joseph into Egypt and had become the king’s favorite. I had snugly floated with Moses in his ark among the bulrushes and had led the children of Israel through the Red Sea. As a grand climax to it all I had strutted forth with the red-headed boy David in front of the entire Philistine army and smote the giant Goliath right between the eyes with my slingshot, and with one foot planted on his prostrate chest held up his gory head amidst the thunderous applause of the Israelitish army.
But to-night what was she reading? It was about the wonder man Jesus. He made dead men live and blind men see. I was a bit dubious. But Mother said it was so, and Mother was to be relied upon. But what is she reading now? ‘Whosoever believeth in him should . . . have eternal life.’ Could that be true? Men certainly died, even people who believed in the Bible. Old Grandma Williams from the next farm east, a great Methodist, had died, and only yesterday I had seen the hearse go by in a snowstorm and Father had helped put her in the ground in the little cemetery on the hill. She was as dead as my dog Rover, run over by a hay wagon and buried by the old stone pile in the barnyard.
These Sunday-evening readings continued until I was sent away to prep school and college, then to law school at the University. I started practising law in the neighboring city, and have been at it for about thirty-five years. When I was a boy, the Bible was the most talked-of book in the house; early I had acquired a taste for it. While in school I continued to read it, but not very regularly. Soon after my admission to the bar I was asked to teach a misfit class of boys in Sunday school. Later I was given the men’s class. For over a third of a century I have tried to teach the Bible. I have read it a great deal and have studied parts of it with care. I have not been interested in any system of theology or in any theory of God. I am not troubled by doubts about the existence of God or about the divinity of His Son. I believe the Bible to be the Word of God and have endeavored to understand it.
Some years ago I read of an unbelieving editor who told a preacher that if he could convince him that he would live forever he would be in church every Sunday. Here was my old question of eternal life. What is it, and what assurance have we that it is what we faintly think it is or desire it to be? I find the direct statement in the Bible that it is granted to the followers of Christ. But there seem to be many inconsistent or at least vague statements in the Bible about life hereafter, so that the ordinary man is left in doubt as to whether the life he is to inherit is a very certain or satisfactory existence. Is he to sleep untold ages after he dies? Is he to lose his present existence by being swallowed up in the life of his Creator? Is he to cease existing as the person he now feels himself to be? Is he to be a breath of air, a disembodied spirit floating about in the ether devoid of sight, feeling, and senses? Is he to be changed into an immaterial spirit that sings psalms and renders adoration to his Creator without will, feeling, or understanding? Will he be a man or a phantom?
I am not questioning the Bible or its benefits. I have gained untold satisfaction from its pages. To me it is the word of God, and in it there is superhuman power. I believe that most men who read it have the same experience. But I find that most of its readers are in doubt about the meaning of eternal life. What is it? Does it have any correspondence to life as we know it? When does it commence? What are some of its main qualities?
As I have already stated, I have endeavored for many years to be a serious student of the Bible. I believe in it. I have not read it in a critical spirit, but as one who believes in God and in Jesus as His divine Son, yet I have been left in doubt about this question of eternal life. Certainly the Bible teaches that it is something. But what is it?
My Bible class is composed of men from various walks of life, a fair crosssection of American business and professional men. I find that these men have no definite idea as to what eternal life is. They rely upon the statements of the Bible. Some think the dead sleep until the Judgment Day; others think they, like the thief on the cross, enter upon the future life immediately after death; still others believe they are absorbed into the good of heaven and that each one loses his personality; while others assert that we shall be men like the angels that have appeared upon the earth. All support their views with more or less appropriate passages of Scripture. But after over thirty years of studying and teaching the Bible, and after consultation with others, I had not reached a definite idea about the life hereafter. I had about concluded that this was a subject too mystical and difficult for the human mind, and that nothing more could be learned about it. This has not been a satisfactory position. As more time has passed, I have had the feeling borne in upon me that a satisfactory answer exists and that there must be a way of finding it. I desire to state at this point that I am not now, nor ever have been, interested in so-called spiritualism. From what little I have read about it I do not think it furnishes any satisfactory answer to the questions I raise about eternal life.
An aged friend of mine recently died. He had been an ardent Christian. His long life had been one of devotion, worship, and unselfish philanthropy. Toward his last days he told a visiting friend, ‘I was in Heaven yesterday. I saw my father, my mother, and my old business partner.’ My friend’s wife and his physician smiled about the statement. They said he had been dreaming. But he, as clear-minded and as alert as ever, asserted that he knew what he was talking about. This report interested me. Here was something definite, and recent. Here was a devout man, with a right to inherit eternal life if anyone had such a right, who asserted that he had seen his father, mother, and partner as living people and had recognized them as such. His statement is just what I wished to believe about eternal life. I wanted to believe that in the afterlife men lived, talked, and saw as men. Here at least was something tangible.
I recall that Russell Conwell appeared before his congregation one Sunday morning and told them he understood from the Bible that there was no communication between those of the other world and those of this, but he had seen his deceased wife that morning, standing at the foot of his bed, and she had communicated with him. He stated that he had seen her on other occasions. This, coming from a man of unquestioned reliability, is more evidence that eternal life consists of a continuation of life in a form such as we know it here — a life in human form that can be seen. I was reminded of the complacent Socrates, who, several centuries before Christ’s sojourn upon the earth, had faced an unnatural death with the assurance that God will continue a man’s life, as a man, after death.
Some time ago I saw an ad in one of the popular weeklies stating that a book called Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, by Emanuel Swedenborg, could be obtained for a small sum. Formerly I had had the impression that Swedenborg was the founder of a freak religion, but a sound preacher had told me that he was a philosopher of parts. I secured the book. After reading a little of it I was skeptical of the sanity of the author. But I went to the public library and read some biographies of the man. I found that he was a profound scholar, a reader of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; that he was a great scientist; and that, as government director of mines, he had done much for the mining industries of Sweden. He was the son of a bishop, and above all was an honest Christian man. He spent twenty-seven of the last years of his long life in writing on religious subjects, giving an account of his remarkable experience. His writings on the Bible and religious subjects include some thirty volumes. His explanation of the Book of Revelation convinced me that here was no ordinary man.
But to get back to the book I had purchased. I was entranced with it. In it I found the answer to practically all the questions about eternal life that had perplexed me — a book of over five hundred pages, written with delightful simplicity and clarity, its assertions buttressed with passages from the Bible. It calls attention to the fact that Christ, after His resurrection, appeared as a man, so recognized by His disciples and believers — that He walked, talked, ate, and acted like a human being. It states that man’s mind is his spirit, which never dies. When man loses his natural body his mind lives on, clothed with a spiritual body. After death man is like himself with the exception of this change to a spiritual form — that is, he walks, talks, eats, sleeps, and has all his senses in the spirit world the same as in this world, though much improved.
Is this the fantastic dream of a man subject to illusions? Let us see. This man was a scientist by profession, accustomed to proving things by experiments. He was not a writer of fanciful tales, but a writer of facts. For a period of twenty-seven years this gifted man asserts he was at intervals lifted out of his body in thought, and while in complete consciousness was shown Heaven and Hell. He talked personally with thousands of angels. He conversed with scores of deceased acquaintances. Time and again he had this experience. His spirit, or mind, was taken into Heaven. He observed the celestial homes, streets, fields, palaces, inhabitants, and customs, and had these things explained to him. In appearance the spirit world is similar to the earth. Men of the earth become angels immediately after death; they are conducted by angels to the land of spirits, where they appear the same as upon earth. They see, feel, walk, and eat — study, write, and worship. They have governments and live in societies of like minds. Their food, clothing, and homes are furnished by the Lord; but they have work to do. Of what life after death consists, how men live, their speech, their houses, their wisdom, their progress, their government, even time and space there, were shown to this visitor. His writings set forth the things revealed to him.
As a lawyer I have had the usual experience of examining written testimony and of testing the reliability of witnesses. Mr. Swedenborg convinces me that his experiences were real. He explains many difficult passages of the Bible; he answers my questions about eternal life.
More than fifty years have passed since I lay on the rug in front of the fire and heard Mother read from the Bible. Again I am in the old living room sitting before the fire. Long ago Father and Mother were taken to the little cemetery on the hill. The old farm has become not only a vacation place but a shrine. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren scamper t hrough the long room and sometimes stop and examine the queer old book on the curly-maple table. Often they beg for a story and ask strange questions about what becomes of people after they die. I tell them that children are taken care of by loving friends and teachers and grow to be men and women of Heaven.
The sun has dropped below the treetops over Nichols’ woods. The children have assembled for the night. There is another boy on the rug before the fire. His eyes grow heavy. I reach for the old book on the table.