WHAT doubts, what darkness, what despair, had for ages rested upon the tomb! Victims alike of evil in the present, and of uncertainty respecting a future life, the successive generations of men seemed born only to see their predecessors die; to wonder and to lament at the mysteriousness of their fate, and then to experience themselves their melancholy destiny. From that undiscovered country to which the great and the obscure, the happy and the wretched, were continually departing, no traveller had ever returned. To ascertain the mysteries of an hereafter, reason had wearied itself in vain. Affection, bidding farewell to all it loved, had found nothing to console its despondency; and even hope, [242/243] which can lift itself to boundless prospects upon the light and unsubstantial cloud, and almost make the certainty which it desires; even hope, confounded by the wreck of mortality and the waste of the grave, had not power to overcome the realities of dissolution.
That the dormant spring of life might yet awake, or that the spirit, though departed, might yet return, seemed, so long as the body was kept from corruption, to offer a distant, though a slender probability, and therefore the art of the embalmer was cultivated, and spices and powerful aromatics were employed to resist the decay of nature, and preserve unalterable the human form; and to protect it from exposure and injury during its unconscious state, the massy and almost indestructible pyramid was reared upon its broad and solid base.
But though the body had been successfully preserved, and had retained for ages its outward appearance, no animating spirit had ever returned; and the vanity of this expectation, or the seeming impossibility of its fulfilment, were perhaps the motives, with others, to anticipate the natural sentence of decay, and to consume the body without reluctance in the flame of the funeral pyre, in order to retain, as the last memorial of affection, the ashes of the departed.
Among those by whom the animating principle was deemed to survive, there were none who [243/244] conjectured that the body, once destroyed, could again be restored; and the only opinion which seemed with any probability to obtain, was that the spirit, immediately on quitting its wonted tabernacle, took up its residence in a new and different abode. Some solitary proofs there were in the history of man, to show that the human body might be made immortal, and be the continued associate of the spirit in its after state. For Enoch, before he had reached half the term of existence then usual among his fellows, had been translated, that he should not see death, "for he was taken from the earth, and his body was not found, because God had translated him." And Elijah, "carried up in a whirlwind of fire, and in a chariot of fiery horses," went into heaven. But these were instances rather of exemption from the ordinary law of dissolution, than of what they who were actually subject to it, might hope to attain. The knowledge of these facts was also extremely limited. Nor from those privileged partakers of immortality, had any intimation been conveyed, which could relieve the Anxiety, or remove the doubts, of those from whom they were separated. In this state of uncertainty, it is no wonder that most of the ancient sects of philosophers denied the existence of the soul after death; and if some proceeded so far as to deem its immortality probable, the fact itself was too deficient in evidence to be explicitly asserted, [244/245] or unhesitatingly believed. So that Seneca declared, that "immortality, however desirable, was rather promised than proved by those great men who affirmed it." [Seneca, Ep. 102.]
"To know the certain truth in this life," in the well known language of one of the disciples of Socrates, "is either impossible or at least exceeding difficult. As it is, we must take the best human reason we can find, and that which is least liable to exceptions; and upon this plank or raft must sail through life as we can, unless any one should meet with a safer and less hazardous reliance, which can only be by a revelation from God." [Plato Phaedon, p. 85.] That God would one time or other make such a discovery respecting man's future state, Socrates himself, that best and wisest of the heathen philosophers, taught and believed; and he speaks of that as a happy day; but in the mean time, in the view of his own dissolution, he could only say, "I hope I am now going to good men, though this I would not take upon me peremptorily to assert. I hope that there is something remaining for those that are dead; and that it will then be much better for the good than the bad." Yet at the last, so full of apprehension were his views, that he confessed to his friends, "I am going out of the world, and you are to continue in it; but which of us has [245/246] the better part, is a secret to every one but God."
Cicero, in his first book of his Tusculan Questions, comes to a similar conclusion: for after he has spoken of the several opinions concerning the nature and duration of the soul, he says, "which of these is true God alone knows, and which is most probable is a very great question." [Tusc. Quest, lib. i.] And a poet who was contemporary with him, giving up as hopeless the expectation of a future existence, invites to the free enjoyment of present pleasures by this consideration, that "the sun and stars, when they sat, could rise again, but that man, when his short day was ended, must lie down and sleep in one perpetual night." [Catullus Carm. 5.] Early tradition, however, had promised better things; and Job, who lived nearer the source from which it was derived, had confidence and faith to declare, "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." This belief in a resurrection, cherished from early times, and originating in a divine promise, had, however, become so corrupt, even in the chosen nation to whom were committed the oracles of God, that the fact and the manner of it were alike called in question, and [246/247] a considerable sect among the Jews maintained the doctrine, that there was no permanent existence in a separate state, neither of angel nor spirit, and therefore there could be no resurrection. To redeem us from that sin which caused all our ignorance and all our woe; to overcome death, and open unto us the gate of everlasting life; to dispel the darkness and despair of the human mind, and to disclose with certainty the destiny of man; Jesus Christ appeared on the earth, a glorious messenger from the courts of heaven. The seed of the woman, in him was fulfilled the original prediction of God to man. God himself, he came to be the light of the world. By him the first promises of immortality were re-published, and by him the conditions on which it was suspended were declared. From the grave he removed the shadows and clouds which had settled in impenetrable darkness around it, and proclaimed with certainty the animating but startling truth of a resurrection of all the individuals who have ever lived. "Marvel not at this," was his language, "for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the grave shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."
Having given abundant evidence of his power over the elements of this material world, he [247/248] declared and gave evidence, that he had power also over the world of spirits, and over the bodies and souls of men. Proclaiming forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of his own death, he laid down the most perfect rules of conduct. And while he represented the attainment of a virtuous and holy character, as the greatest object of human pursuit, and the only passport to the favour of God, he offered to those who should seek it, the most exalted motive and the highest reward. "Verily, verily, I say unto you," was his declaration, "he that heareth my word and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." Scarcely, however, was this declaration uttered, and scarcely were these high expectations raised, when the hopes which men had ventured to indulge, appeared to be blasted for ever. He who gave the promise of life seemed unable to avert from himself the stroke of death! He who proclaimed immortality to men, became himself the victim of the monarch whom he threatened to destroy. He whose voice was to call forth the generations of the dead from their graves, was himself consigned to the house of silence. We have seen him, my brethren, delivered into the power of his enemies. We have beheld him suffering the agony and the shame of crucifixion. We have witnessed the triumph of the priests and rulers, when they called upon him to come down from [248/249] the cross, that they might believe. We have heard the revilings of the multitude who but lately strewed branches, and cried, "Hosannah" before him, as they now exclaim, "He saved others, himself he could not save." "It is finished," We have listened to his dying exclamation, and the tomb of Joseph has received him, who said, He was the Son of God.
My brethren, is this the termination of our hopes? We trusted it had been he who should have delivered Israel. Are we doomed to behold in his death the destruction of all our expectations of immortality? Shall the grave set its final seal upon these the best prospects and the only dependence of man? No! helpless as we are of all other resource, let us not too hastily abandon this. Rather let us listen to the voice which seems to say, even from amid the darkness of the noonday sun, and the convulsions of the earth, and the rending of the rocks, and the bursting of the graves, "stand still, and see the salvation of God." Nor shall we wait or look in vain. For from this night of despair bursts forth the effulgence of celestial day. From the doubts which for a time overclouded our hopes of immortality, have been realized the triumph and the confirmation of our faith. From the very certainty of Christ's death, we gather, with the most perfect assurance, the certainty of our life. He himself submitted to become the example of what [249/250] we must be. He has himself, in his own person, evinced his power to make us that which he has promised, that we shall become; "for now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept."
I will not take up your time to prove the fact, which infidelity has never been able to subvert, that Jesus Christ arose from the dead. This you already believe. But that which most concerns! us all, and which I ask you to believe and to consider is, that he is "become the first fruits of them that slept;" that because he has burst the bars of death, we also shall be delivered from the grave, and raised again to life and blessedness. The goodness of God and the truth of his Son stood pledged to this effect before Christ suffered; and if in his humiliation we might have seen reason to doubt his power to perform it, in his resurrection that power has been fully and conclusively established. Who but God can raise the dead? And if Jesus Christ had power to lay down his life, and had power to take it again, he must be truly God. What evidence more convincing can we have, that all power is given to him in heaven and in earth? And if he who being now risen from the dead dieth no more, declared, because I live ye shall live also, what stronger assurance shall we require, that our bodies shall be raised from the dust of the grave; that of the rest into which he has entered, we shall be admitted to [250/251] participate; that we shall be with him where he is to behold his glory! This, my brethren, if we are animated by the spirit of Christ, and walk in the paths of his commandments, is the view which we should take of the event which we now celebrate. It is our own resurrection, not less than the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we are permitted to rejoice in and contemplate. It is the eternal life which awaits these spirits; the immortal bodies in which they shall be clothed. It is the certainty that we shall never taste of death; that the putting off the flesh shall be the disenthralling of the spirit to enter into the paradise of God; and that hereafter, at the bidding of our Redeemer, our bodies shall be resumed immortal, spiritual, glorious. "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die." Our being, therefore, shall not terminate in the grave. This scene of sorrow, of perplexity, and of toil, shall not be the last in the history of our existence. Earthly things may change and decay. Empires rise to grandeur and sink into oblivion. The world may become the tomb of its own greatness, and be itself the ruin which it has beheld, but the soul shall never cease to be. It shall still and for ever survive, indestructible, undying, immortal. But, I repeat it, not only shall the soul survive; [251/252] for the resurrection of Jesus Christ has infallibly demonstrated that the body shall also be raised to partake of its immortality; for he himself has pronounced the decree, "the dead shall be raised incorruptible."
My brethren, why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" Shall any thing be impossible to him who is the almighty and the infinite God! Shall any thing be difficult to him who made the earth by his power, and established the world by his wisdom, and stretched out the heavens by his discretion; who spreadeth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing; Him by whom all nature is animated and sustained, and in whom at this very moment we live, and move, and have our being?
Object not the desolation which pervades the grave. Say not that earth, and ashes, and dust, alone remain, and that the body once dissolved can never be restored. Unthinking man, "that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die." Look at the annual process by which creation is destroyed, only to rise in fresher glory, and to shine forth in renovated perfection. The opening flower which imparts its fragrance to the breath of spring, owes its beauty and its sweetness to decay, to corruption, and death. The ripening harvest, which waves to the summer breeze, springs from the bosom of the wintry [252/253] clod, over which destruction and annihilation had seemed securely to triumph. Thus changing earth suggests analogies to give us confidence, that we may aspire to the skies, and the skies themselves as often as over the gloom of night they pour the splendours of the rising day, and awaken from the insensibility of a deathlike sleep a whole world to activity, to cheerfulness, and to life; the skies themselves present before us the semblance of a daily resurrection, and give testimony to the reasonableness of our hopes. But, why need we seek for analogies in nature to assure us that the word of God is credible, and that the resurrection which he has promised to these bodies, he is able to effect? Is it not less difficult to restore out of dust, than to create out of nothing? Or grant the utmost extent of the difficulty, does not reason tell us that the power which once created, can create again? And if the mode of such a restored and future existence appear to our minds to be unaccountable and full of mystery, is it any more than the present already is? Thus far reason may conduct and carry us. Still it is revelation alone, revelation confirmed and demonstrated in the fact of Christ's resurrection, which can give confidence to our expectation, and enable us, who possess it, to reason where others only ventured to hope; nay, rather where others entirely despaired. The resurrection of Christ is a full answer to all uncertainty, [253/254] objection, and doubt. This fact puts an end to all vain speculation, and fancied impossibility, certifies us of the truth of our rising from the grave, and confirms, beyond all question, the certainty of that life and immortality which the righteous shall hereafter inherit.
Assured, my brethren, that Christ is now risen from the dead, and that in heaven he lives for evermore, with what joyfulness should we cherish that promise of eternal life which he has given us. He is the first fruits of them that slept, and his resurrection being certain, the resurrection of those who sleep in him necessarily follows, for we may confidently argue, that "as surely as the first fruits are the proof of the harvest, so surely is the resurrection of Christ a proof of ours."
Now, my brethren, seeing that life and immortality are brought to light, is there nothing in the hope set before us in the Gospel, to make us anxious to know whether we are doing what God requires us to do, in order to secure it? Is not the prospect of a future and better existence the most exalted distinction of our nature, and shall not all our best wishes be enkindled, and all our best powers be active in its pursuit? Shall man, the lord of creation, the heir of glory, there only forget his dignity where most his dignity appears? Shall he there only neglect to employ his reason where reason might anticipate its noblest triumph? Shall he there only be content to be ignorant [254/255] when to know is life everlasting? And while we leave nothing at hazard which belongs to this fleeting existence, but by care, and perseverance, and earnest toil, pursue those advantages of wealth and honour, of learning and fame, which, without our own efforts, we know we cannot attain; shall we in respect of the life eternal, of the blessedness which God has revealed, shall we take for granted that success is certain, that heaven is ours, as a thing of course? Shall we leave all at peradventure for eternity, and make no inquiry, give no diligence, to ascertain our character and prospects, until in the future world the dreadful reality shall be forced upon us, that all is lost; and that it is too late again to recover what once it was in our own power, by God's grace, to secure? The Gospel declares that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, neither is there salvation in any other; and it is only they who are renewed in his own image, and whose tempers and desires are conformed to his will and example, only they who love him and keep his commandments, and who, growing in grace, are made meet for the heavenly inheritance, who can at all expect to experience a joyful resurrection, and to dwell in the presence of God. They who neither love him nor obey him now, cannot hereafter be partakers of that felicity which he has promised. They shall indeed rise from their graves, but it shall be to inherit shame and [255/256] everlasting contempt. Such, my brethren, must of necessity be the lot of all who seek their pleasure in the things of this miserable and perishing world, disregarding all those higher interests which belong to the world to come. Alas! that there should be any who are so lost to reason, to ambition, to their best wisdom, and their best interest! Yet many such there are, and some it may be even in this assembly, who are preparing for themselves an evil and an irreversible destiny. But on that bright morning of the resurrection, when they, who now by faith receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour, and live the life of holiness and of watchfulness which he requires, and all they who, departed in his faith and fear, now sleep in him; when all these myriads of the just shall rise first and hail the coming of their Lord with joyful acclamation., how shall your folly be manifested, my brethren, who have habitually neglected and forgotten him. Oh! would that for you the sleep of eternal ages rested upon the grave! Would that for you the night of death knew not the rising of that dreadful dawn! There shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all who have sought the favour of God, admitted into the kingdom of heaven, and you yourselves cast out. My brethren, what consolation belongs to you, who, working out your salvation with fear and trembling, are giving all diligence to make your [256/257] calling and election sure. How may your thoughts range forward beyond the narrow boundaries of time! How may you smile at the temporary desolation of the grave, and looking far beyond to the long eternity which shall succeed, behold your happiness made sure for ever! How may you dwell with joyful anticipation upon the peace and the blessedness that shall be there, upon the restoration of all that you have here lost, upon the possession of all that you have here desired. Think of this, ye whom poverty, and affliction, and cares oppress. Your light affliction, which is but for a moment, shall work for you a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Oppressed and disheartened though you be for the present, the things which afflict you are merely temporal, but the things unseen, which await you, are eternal and full of blessedness; and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ you are assured that the things eternal shall be yours.
And ye who weep for the departed, and whose thoughts rest in sadness upon the memory of the pious dead, behold in the resurrection which the Gospel makes known, your best and all-sufficient consolation. He who is risen from the dead has become the first fruits of them that slept. Sorrow not, therefore, even as others which have no hope, for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him,
 Christians, whatever be your adversities and your troubles, let the consideration of the glory which is revealed in the life to come, bring composure in them all. Even under the burden of the infirmities and the sins which you lament, it is you privilege to reflect, that he who burst the bars of death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life, has ascended into heaven, and that there ever liveth to make intercession for us. He who was delivered for our offences, was raised again for our justification. This is the evidence that God accepts the atonement, and ransoms the sinner. It is the evidence that he who overcame the sharpness of death, has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. With what confidence should we repose in his promises! With what diligence should we strive to do his will! And having the certainty of pardon through his blood, and of salvation through his power, how careful should we be to live as becomes the sons of God, and heirs of an immortal inheritance.