Are We Immortal?


ARE we immortal? Does the human spirit so precariously and so briefly housed in a physical body cease to be when that body ceases to be? Or does that soaring entity, the soul, once it has passed the gate of darkness, continue somewhere the challenging adventure into mystery which characterized its earth existence? Surely, for any thinking person, material life on a material planet can be seen to be based on a series of conjectures, each one more audacious than the last, like the climbing rungs of a ladder. Are we immortal? Since no one knows the answer, or can know, it seems as if each of us should be permitted the choice between two opposed guesses. Either we die when we die, or we don’t, and it is just as dogmatic to insist on the first as on the second. We all have an equal right to choose on which of the two hypotheses we shall build that fragile structure called a philosophy of life. Nothing in all human experience, however, is so humbling as to realize that the sole argument for any philosophy of life is the person who is trying to live it!

It is odd that, although we constantly talk about a philosophy of life, we so rarely stop to examine that philosophy of death on which present-day thought and action increasingly depend. There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history that is not dominated by the popular assumption that human personality does not survive physical dissolution. One of the strangest phases of this black era is the effect on world movements of this widespread decay of faith in a hereafter. There is something mysteriously persistent in man’s concern for immortality, for when he cannot have it for himself, he claims it for his nation. Exactly in proportion as individuals give up all belief in personal survival, together with its inescapable corollary of reverence for all human qualities that are worthy of continuance, — veracity, coöperation, kindliness, — do they demand for their nation earthly survival and earthly renown. If there were no other reason for favoring a conviction of immortality, one might suggest that such a conviction is a corrective of nationalism, for if a man believes that his own spirit will survive death he is very likely to believe that the spirit of his country may prove equally indestructible.

It needs only a glance to reveal how many present-day tendencies are affected by the underlying acceptance of the decisiveness of death. Take war, for example. Obviously, if we really believed that the human spirit continues after the body that houses it has been bombed to bits, war would steadily fade from the picture simply because it would appear ludicrously inconclusive. In like manner, profit would cease to be a sustaining motive if once we admitted to ourselves that money may not help us much on the next lap of the soul’s pilgrimage. The popular preoccupation with power politics might cease to possess the minds of statesmen if it should once become clear that the best to be expected would be to dominate for a tiny fraction of time people who might at any moment slip away into indomitable continuance. Even our present passion for social and racial improvement might perceptibly weaken once cynics began to whisper, ‘Why all this uplift of our humanity if the ultimate end for all is extinction?’

Possibly the Nazis of today are not basically different from the rest of us, but only more rational. There are intellectual leaders of our time who are singularly proud of their denial of any God, and of their contempt for any immortality. A personal God, and equally a personal survival, are, they maintain, the sentimental refuge of the silly. The Nazis simply carry this prevalent present-day surmise to its conclusion. While a kindlier philosophy continues to deck out our nothingness in the trappings of art and music and poetry and social courtesy, the totalitarians are saying far more logically, ‘If we are no better than the animals, why not be animals, here and now and heartily?’ That is the straight and simple language of the bomb, and against the starkness of that argument the genial artists and writers and thinkers of today have nothing more powerful to oppose than their own pleasanter, but fundamentally identical, conclusions. We are feeling ourselves islanded on an ever-dwindling safety zone of what we still fondly call civilization. But why blame Hitler? What was due to happen to people who had grown so witless that they could ascribe to blind chance the infinite pattern of the universe? And why should we demand the preservation of our human bodies in comfort and security when we had long ago dismissed their high inhabitant, the soul, as a vagary of deluded minds?

Yet for a score of centuries there has been in existence a little band of people who believed, and for a while actually succeeded in living, a very different philosophy, one that might rightly have been called a philosophy of life, not death. Christianity is a religion founded on a survival of human personality after physical destruction, a religion always motivated by the assumption that what one man succeeded in achieving for himself other men may be permitted to expect for themselves. When first Christianity flamed like a flower from out the decadent and despairing creeds of the ancient world, it had not yet sunk to the strait-jacketing of a code; it was still the good news of a living comrade. When any religion has begun to decay from adventure to argument it has begun to die, even though in itself it holds the innermost secret of life. Today Christianity is discussed pro and con as a code, the articles of its creed to be selected and followed wherever agreeable, and promptly rejected wherever they collide with current views of what is called realistic. At the beginning Christianity was not a code, it was a Christ. A Christ produced a Paul; a code produces the fainthearts of our time. Today, as one looks over the wreckage of our world, the Christian is of all men the humblest, for of all men he best realizes his own failure. He knows that he inherited the stewardship of a faith that holds personal immortality to be the most creative of all our life’s conjectures. But think what might have happened to world history if the men and women calling themselves Christ’s had been able to live as if they were immortal!


Nothing is perhaps more difficult for a Christian to talk about than the Christian faith, for these two words mean different things to different persons. For clarity’s sake, then, I need to state at once that when I use the term ‘ Christian faith’ I mean the daily, hourly attempt to live as if the most mysterious man in human history were closer to me than breath itself. The more I study the short broken records of his passage across time, the most conspicuous trait to impress me is that Jesus of Nazareth lived every moment of his earth life as if he expected to live forever. His proved ability to achieve such competent serenity through happy days or hideous ones is to me even more significant than his restoration after physical death.

The more I consider the brief arrested career of Jesus of Nazareth, the more his Resurrection seems to me the inexorable corollary of the discipline he steadfastly imposed upon his mortal life. Once again needing to be exact, I mean, when I employ the word ‘Resurrection,’ the reputed reappearance of Jesus to his friends, after they had watched him die and seen him buried and witnessed the official sealing of his tomb. Actually it is still for the majority a word deprived of its power to empower, for anyone who regards the Resurrection of Jesus as a closed incident has never really believed it. I am trying here humbly and brokenly to state my own acceptance of an occurrence that so many people dismiss as fantasy. I am not trying to convince anyone, but merely to explain why I am myself convinced. In my approach to Jesus I have always tried to bring to my appraisal the same trained imagination and the same honest scholarship that I should feel it only ethical to employ in studying Shakespeare or Socrates. Any early witness of Jesus’ Return, however crudely and imperfectly portrayed in the Gospels, merits as sympathetic an examination as would the Fool in Lear, or young Alcibiades when he flashes like a lyric from the prose of Plato.

First then, as I examine one Christian’s creed of Christian adventure, I find that I believe in the Resurrection primarily because of its effect—an incredible result implies an incredible cause. Something happened two thousand years ago that no one has ever satisfactorily explained away. I scrutinize those strange broken little biographies of an unprecedented man, and I find there an event narrated by men dazed and astounded — and transformed by it. I believe in the Resurrection first because of its effect on the men who told about it, and next because of its effect on the actual story that they told; and then, still seeking to trace back a great result to a great cause, I believe in the Resurrection of that far-off Nazareth carpenter because of its effect on subsequent history. Yet all these happenings would for me belong to the dead past if I could not see Jesus of Nazareth still alive today wherever people will let him be. Therefore I believe in the Resurrection because of its actual effect on present-day Christians I have known, either through actual conversation, or through their blazing words still being freshly printed, or through their blazing lives of dedication — lives still being lived in this black hour. Last of all, I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus because of its effect on myself. I believe that we all possess within us the seed of that perennial immortality which Jesus, first of all humanity, succeeded in adventuring and revealing.

Perhaps nothing has been oftener argued than the soporific hypothesis that the associates of Jesus were mistaken when they proclaimed his return from the grave. They were superstitious folk, it is maintained, still under the spell of a magnetic personality. This easy dismissal of a mysterious event would have more effect on my own reason if I could believe that the people who today thus honor superstition had ever read the Gospel record. It is impossible for me to read the accounts of the attitude and actions of Jesus’ followers, at the time of the crucifixion, and see these followers as anything but utterly despairing and broken men and women. They all ran to hiding, and cowered behind closed doors, fearing that their leader’s fate would also involve themselves. ‘ I never knew him! ‘ screams one of them in hysterical denial, afraid of even a housemaid’s tongue.

There is, of course, evidence that there were certain people who did expect that Jesus’ restoration would be reported, but these were not the people who had loved him — they were the people who had killed him. It was not his timorous disciples who were looking for his return; it was his executioners who demanded of the Roman governor that an official seal be set on the sepulchre and an official guard be ordered to watch it. It was the same nerve-shattered coward that had shouted denial who six weeks afterward was proclaiming in the open street and in the very teeth of the terrorists, ‘This same Jesus is alive!’

I find myself forced to believe that a transcendent transformation had occurred in the character of Peter when he saw Someone and spoke to him by the lakeside in the brightening dawn. And, quietly perusing ancient words that come alive as I study them, I cannot evade believing that something transcendent also happened there on the Damascus road to re-create Saul, the maddened persecutor, into Paul, the intrepid announcer of an incredible Return. Something surely had happened both to Peter and to Paul that made them bold enough to go to death for their conviction that one man had come back from the grave.

But far more than by the people who told the strange tale am I influenced by the kind of tale they told. The accounts of the Resurrection form a broken, illmatched record, naive to absurdity. It is as if men and women came before us still gasping out their stupefaction, breathless, white to the lips with wonder. They reveal themselves as so possessed by the unbelievable that argument for their veracity would be beyond their conception. That their evidence two thousand years later would come to be scrutinized as if they had been speaking in a law court could not have occurred to them. Actually their own transformation was their only argument, but they were so rapt with surprise they could not even remember they were transformed.

Yet it is the nature of their report that most impresses me. The Resurrection narratives are so vivid that they hang forever in the gallery of the world’s imagination. But examine them one by one and what does one find? An astonishing absence of invention! The people who are loudest in insisting that these stories are the fabrication of human fancy are the people who have never read them.

All these pictures that one by one glide past as if they were colored photographs cast upon a screen — Jesus entering a shadowy room through locked doors to reassure his disciples gathered together in secrecy and terror; Jesus at the portal of a tomb comforting a grief-stricken woman, himself so natural in voice and appearance that she thinks he is the gardener; Jesus joining two despairing wayfarers on a Sunday afternoon walk; Jesus making a special sortie out of mystery to prove his undying affection for a friend who doubted hearsay as we doubt it; Jesus at a beach breakfast drawing aside the man who had denied him in order to reiterate his reinstatement in the sublime missionary effort — all these Resurrection stories are variants of the same theme, the identity of the Jesus who returned from death with the Jesus who had gone to death. Human invention would have pictured Jesus as confounding his enemies, not as a man still solely occupied with comforting his friends. Human invention, fed as it then was on popular apocalypse, would have represented Jesus as returning with a blare of celestial thunder, and in a blaze of ineffable glory. The utter simplicity of the scenes that describe Jesus’ restoration makes them strangely convincing. I, merely one reader of an ancient record, am reasonably familiar with the heights to which man’s imagination has attained in drama and poem and picture, but I have never found in any literature genius that could have achieved the absolute matching of characteristics by which the Resurrection scenes portray a man after death as still absolutely the same as he was before death.


Again, always trying to interpret a great event by a great cause, I cannot explain the change in the course of history that occurred in the first century, except by the Resurrection. It does not seem possible that the teaching of ghostridden men could have released for the world a brand-new system of ethics vigorous with new life and inexorably exacting in its demands. It does not appear conceivable that a flickering spectre could have been sufficient to send men and women laughing to the lions. Martyrs on pyre and pyre down through the years must have seen a real face welcoming them through the flames. When one observes what was actually happening decade by decade, the new dating given to the centuries since Christ does not appear to be a mere accident. Even through the Dark Ages that were to elapse after its first planting, the new hope for mankind was secretly kept alive — and may be kept alive again during a similar encircling gloom!

When I gaze back across the blind rolling centuries and perceive all that came into the world in the wake of Jesus’ Resurrection, I find I cannot doubt that far-off transcendent Fact. I know absolutely no other way to explain the starry purposes of Quaker kindliness today, nor the radiance of certain humble people whom I see beholding Jesus as close beside them as did Peter or Paul or Mary of Magdala. If Jesus did not return, how are we to account for Saint Francis? In fact, how are we to account for any person or for any practice associated with the word ‘Christian’ if Jesus did not actually come back from death? All his broken-hearted followers had fled to hiding; which of them would ever have ventured forth even to whisper the good tidings of that mysterious earth sojourn if Jesus had not come back to reassure them? If Jesus’ life had ended with his death, how would anybody ever have heard of him?

It has been my singular good fortune to know some great and simple Christians still walking our black highroads of hate as confidently as did the first witnesses of the first Return. These high and holy men are not much known to the loud-speakers of our day. In his own lifetime there were probably uncounted pagans who had never heard of Paul, and who were completely uninformed about the illustrious prisoner confined on the outskirts of their proud city. I fancy that people who believe in an unseen and nobler universe pressing close about us have always been laughed at — when they were not accorded a cruler fate! It is not hard to picture the life of a new-made Christian in that impervious ancient world. A Christian would have been treated kindly by his pagan friends, but he would have been acutely conscious of their controlled and tolerant mockery, and he would have felt helpless to penetrate their materialism with even a hint of his secret hope. But here and there in the crowds the early Christian would have discovered friends of the faith. Christians who had never before seen each other would have met in shining recognition, as they do today, met in the shared fellowship of an unseen Comrade. Today, as always, any group of Christ-made — not code-made — Christians are conspicuous anywhere for sheer radiance. They keep looking always at a man who has illumined the mortal riddle of death.

The Christian faith has from the beginning been a driving missionary effort. Only its slackers have ever kept still. But its greatest missionaries have always been as serene as they were ceaselessly active. A belief in immortality, plus the belief that the living embodiment of that immortality is sharing every breath and thought and movement, actually seems to produce a multiple personality. Men and women reveal powers and fulfill purposes neither they nor anyone else would have believed possible. I have not myself seen or heard that great modern Christian, the Japanese Kagawa. All his youth was a fight against disease and family hostility, all his later life a battle for privilege for the underprivileged. Kagawa goes actually half blinded by the physical contagion incurred in the slums. He has known imprisonment and triumphant release, not only years ago, but again lately. Even now, though a peacemaker in an embattled nation, his voice has not been smothered, nor his energies for social betterment shut off. Kagawa is no accident. He spends the two earliest morning hours in gazing at an immortal Master and speaking to him. I believe in the Resurrection because Kagawa has lived as if he believed it.

Albert Schweitzer, rising imperishably holy from out the wreckage of German ideals, still lives and still works, alone, for an unseen Leader, even in this heavy, God-denying world of today. Himself a master-scholar, a master-musician, it was the summons of an invisible Master that made him forsake all the renown life offered him, to study medicine and build his own tiny hospital in darkest Africa. There the horrors of war are now for a second time menacing his high service. Is Christianity decadent, or the quickening faith in an immortal Comrade grown negligible? Not for one who reads the words of Albert Schweitzer or weighs his single-handed efforts for his God! I believe in the Resurrection because such a man as Albert Schweitzer believes it, and in a desolate African forest is living its meaning at this very moment.

But two great present-day men of God will always come first to my mind when I use the word ‘Christian’: Henry Hodgkin and Wilfred Grenfell. They are not mere names to me — I saw and knew them both. I am to be excused if I cannot lightly share the current easy denial of an unseen world when I have watched such men believe and live their immortality. Henry Hodgkin is the great Quaker who in the bloody turmoil of the First World War founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an institution which still lives and flowers amid all the bloodshed of today. I saw Henry Hodgkin and was for three days under the same roof with him, a dozen years ago. I went from feverish New York for three days’ stillness at the haven of the Friends at Pendle Hill, where an old farmhouse in the rolling country near Philadelphia had been shaped to a permanent retreat. At that time a group of twenty, gathered from all nations and races, were living together there, that being their modern version of an early Christian hostelry. The presiding spirit of the quiet spot was a tall ruddy Englishman named Henry Hodgkin. When, every morning at nine, he stepped into the library where we were all gathered for Quiet Hour, it was as if his very footfall said, ‘Peace.’ The words he spoke to the group wore singularly trenchant and immediate, but the chief memory remains their quiet reassurance. A man who walked with God was present among us, that was all.

Another thing that is fresh in my thought is the framed poem on his study wall, beginning, —

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

We are all familiar with those simple verses, but Henry Hodgkin lived their meaning as being one of the privileges of his accepted immortality.

A year or two later I was to meet another great Christian of a most different type. Wilfred Grenfell was no quiet soul — he was a dynamo for God. When I saw him, ten years ago, the dynamo was wearing weak. But Wilfred Grenfell was not only charged with energy — he was all alive with chuckles at that painful, wheezing machine, his body. Heart disease had long before exacted payment for his intrepid activities for his Labrador fishermen. When I saw him he sat hunched in bed burning with bronchitis and racked with coughing, but twinkling and eager to be talking, a slight old man ablaze. Almost instantly he began to speak to me of the unseen Friend so vivid before us both. I recall that he said, ‘But we shall not know him, any of us, until we become able to see him, not ancient and discarded, but dressed in black dinner dress beside us, our fellow guest at a modern table.'

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth returns from death every day. I believe it because Wilfred Grenfell believed he saw Jesus leading him like a star through ice and snow and bitter desolation, revealing the need of a Christ-man doctor to follow always his call. A lifelong friend of Wilfred Grenfell lately wrote me, in sober appraisal, ‘I think one principle that has guided him has been his desire to do what Jesus would do in a similar situation.’


As I look back at these four Christians, standing forth against our black modern background, I see them sharing certain characteristics of all real Christians of any class or age. Contrary to the easy popular dismissal of all that is called supernatural, these men accepted an invisible pattern which they felt it their sole duty to make visible through their work of dedication. They believed and lived their immortality, because they daily saw Jesus living his immortality before their eyes. All of them went about wearing bodies broken by their self-spending for God. Kagawa is half blind. Albert Schweitzer will always suffer the cruel results of internment in a prison camp. Henry Hodgkin — though no one would have dreamed it — was, even when I saw him, afflicted with an Oriental ailment which was presently to take him from us. The next day after I talked with Wilfred Grenfell, I heard him address a great congregation, twinkling and seeming vigorous. All four of these men bore physical suffering with magnificent detachment. This rather suggests that perhaps bodies are not the determining factor in our lives; they may be no more than a most impermanent wrapping to be lightly tossed aside when the soul within is summoned to go marching on without fleshly impediment.

A second characteristic of all Christians who dare to come alive now and here, these four men possessed a burning passion to go about doing good. Their whole being was offered to the unseen as if on a hidden altar. The most astonishing misunderstanding that we who believe in immortality are called upon to incur is the charge that we are engrossed in another world at the expense of this one! I cannot see that Kagawa, Schweitzer, Hodgkin, Grenfell, and the host of lesser men and women who share their vision and emulate their energy, appear to think about another world any more than did their Master Jesus Christ. How much did Jesus talk about the world to come? Open the Gospels and find out! If ever there lived and taught a more this-worldly man than Jesus, let someone discover and declare him! In every fibre Jesus is the embodiment of the creed of Now. Far from advocating a flowery picture of pearly gates and harps and peace, Jesus is portrayed as sweating drops of blood at the mere thought of leaving a world so cruel that it was crying for the destruction of its greatest benefactor! Even on the cross Jesus is shown as turning aside from His own dying to comfort a fellow being in the few moments of physical life still allowed them both.

So far I have been speaking of the Christian faith of other Christians, harddriven men of God whose vision I have shared and whose embodiment of that vision on the paths of earth I have witnessed. One is reluctant to speak of what the faith of one’s life means to oneself, but it would be cowardly not to. All my grown-up life I have lived in or near the halls of learning. In the proud pagan world of today I have been lonely. None knew better than I how tenderly my friends have tried to hide from me their secret contempt for my simplemindedness. We have shared the books of the day, its plays and pictures, its feverish newspapers and radio. In all externals I have had my part in modern attitudes. In trudging, kindly comradeship I have gone climbing the everrepeated day, side by side with friends I loved. Yet I have possessed a faith they secretly have laughed at. And now, after the rigors of a climbing lifetime, I face the sunset. The evening radiance is becoming a beautiful and ever-increasing light. Presently that sun will dip to blackness for a moment, but only for a moment — then I shall feel myself walking unfettered, straight and free. And I think I shall find that all I had guessed is true. For this has been the guess on which I have built my philosophy: that the God of star and sea and flower is not mocked, least of all does He mock Himself. In His creation, all the way from the first stir of life in water scum, on and on, ever multiplying, ever differentiating, no two leaves alike, no two shells the same, the ceaseless upward push of evolution is everywhere revealed. The urge is always toward personality, more and more highly perfected. Would a Creator suddenly toss to nothingness all the ultimate purpose of perfection, the individual human soul?

We have no surer proof of God than that He lets us guess our way to Him. Every avenue of our life is ascertained by the employment of conjecture. How did Columbus achieve the certainty of a Western Hemisphere? Only by sailing unknown seas! We are very proud of our science, but what is science but conjecture, hypothesis, boldly tested in the secrecy of the laboratory? What is the history of any human discovery but the unbaring of one successive hypothesis after another, each one more daring than the last? Today the scientific method has become ingrained in all of us, as an inescapable mental discipline. Few of us are able to think at all except by the a priori method. Who or what forbids, then, that we essay the conjecture that we are immortal and so recast our present lives as to allow for that staggering possibility?

Daily experiment we accept as the only sure testing of every hypothesis, but we have too long denied ourselves the hour-by-hour evaluating of the most audacious conjecture ever made by the mind of man. Too long the whole concept of immortality has suffered from a most peculiar and lingering misconception — namely, that immortality is a state of being that occurs automatically when we die! But if we arc immortal at all, we are immortal now, this very moment. Why postpone our adjustment to a sublime condition? Let us be as fearlessly pragmatic in the discipline of our souls as of our bodies. His amazing how completely tangled nerves relax, how simply anxieties are lifted, how a thousand fears evaporate, if once we incorporate into our daily philosophy of life the slogan, ‘Use your immortality now.’ Don’t let us postpone the matching of our step to that of a man who always walked immortally.

Are we immortal? No one knows, or can know. God does not insult our growth by giving us certainties to step on. Every hour of our life is a matter of taking chances, a homely phrase for the constant, practice of conjecture. Let us dare to live as if we were immortal, for surely then we shall be better prepared for a condition that may be imposed upon us whether or not we choose it. It sometimes seems as if the real reason so many people resent the possibility of survival of an endless ascending pilgrimage, were that, immortality is a terrible responsibility to face. Negation is much easier to accept. For the Christian there is only one way to become inured to the inexorable splendor awaiting us, and that is to recognize each moment the companionship of a man who achieved the impossible, to imitate the daily conduct of the one man of our climbing race who succeeded in living every day of his mortal life as if he were to live forever.