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The Shaking of the Heavens and the Earth

HEBREWS XII. 26-29.

Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire.

This is one of the Royal texts of Scripture. It is inexhaustible, like the God who inspired it. It has fulfilled itself again and again, at different epochs. It fulfilled itself specially and notoriously in the first century. But it fulfilled itself again in the fifth century; and again at the Crusades; and again at the Reformation in the sixteenth century. And it may be that it is fulfilling itself at this very day; that in this century, both in the time of our fathers and in our own, the Lord has been shaking the heavens and the earth, that those things which can be shaken may be removed, as things that are made, while those things which cannot be shaken may remain.

All confess this to be true, each in his own words. They talk of this age as one of change; of rapid progress, for good or evil; of unexpected discoveries; of revolutions, intellectual, moral, social, as well as political. Our notions of the physical universe are rapidly altering, with the new discoveries of science; and our notions of ethics and theology are altering as rapidly. The era assumes a different aspect to different minds, just as did the first century after Christ, according as men look forward to the future with hope, or back to the past with regret. Some glory in the nineteenth century as one of rapid progress for good; as the commencement of a new era for humanity; as the inauguration of a Reformation as grand as that of the sixteenth century. Others bewail it as an age of rapid decay; in which the old landmarks are being removed, the old paths lost; in which we are rushing headlong into scepticism and atheism; in which the world and the Church are both in danger; and the last day is at hand.

Both parties may be right; and yet both may be wrong. Men have always talked thus, at great crises in the world's life. They talked thus in the first century; and in the fifth, and in the eleventh; and again in the sixteenth; and then both parties were partially right and partially wrong; and so they may be now. What they meant to say, what they wanted to say, what we mean and want to say, has been said already for us in far deeper, wider, and more accurate words, by him who wrote this wonderful Epistle to the Hebrews, when he told the Jews of his time that the Lord was shaking the heavens and the earth, that those things which were shaken might be removed, as things that are made--cosmogonies, systems, theories, prejudices, fashions, of man's invention: while those things which could not be shaken might remain, because they were according to the mind and will of God, eternal as that source from whence they came forth, even the bosom of God the Father.

"Yet once more I shake, not the earth only, but also heaven."

How has the earth been shaken in our days; and the heaven likewise. How rapidly have our conceptions of both altered. How easy, simple, certain, it all looked to our forefathers in the middle age. How difficult, complex, uncertain, it all looks to us. With increased knowledge has come--not increased doubt: that I deny utterly. I deny, once and for all, that this age is an irreverent age. I say that an irreverent age is one like the age of the Schoolmen; when men defined and explained all heaven and earth by a priori theories, and cosmogonies invented in the cloister; and dared, poor, simple, ignorant mortals, to fancy that they could comprehend and gauge the ways of Him Whom the heaven and the heaven of heavens could not contain. This, this is irreverence: but it is neither irreverence nor want of faith, if a man, awed by the mystery which encompasses him from the cradle to the grave, shall lay his hand upon his mouth, with Job, and obey the voice which cries to him from earth and heaven--"Be still, and know that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than thy ways, and my thoughts higher than thine."

But it was all easy, and simple, and certain enough to our forefathers. The earth, according to the popular notion, was a flat plane; or, if it were, as the wiser held, a sphere, yet antipodes were an unscriptural heresy. Above it were the heavens, in which the stars were fixed, or wandered; and above them heaven after heaven, each tenanted by its own orders of beings, up to that heaven of heavens in which Deity--and by Him, be it always remembered, the mother of Deity--was enthroned.

And if above the earth was the kingdom of light, and purity, and holiness, what could be more plain, than that below it was the kingdom of darkness, and impurity, and sin? That was no theory to our forefathers: it was a physical fact. Had not even the heathens believed as much, and said so, by the mouth of the poet Virgil? He had declared that the mouth of Tartarus lay in Italy, hard by the volcanic lake Avernus; and after the unexpected eruption of Vesuvius in the first century, nothing seemed more clear than that Virgil was right; and that men were justified in talking of Tartarus, Styx, and Phlegethon as indisputable Christian entities. Etna, Stromboli, Hecla, were (according to this cosmogony) in like wise mouths of hell; and there were not wanting holy hermits, who had heard, from within those craters, shrieks, and clanking chains, and the howls of demons tormenting the souls of the endlessly lost.

Our forefathers were not aware that, centuries before the Incarnation of our Lord, the Buddhist priests had held exactly the same theory of moral retribution; and that, painted on the walls of Buddhist temples, might be seen horrors identical with those which adorned the walls of many a Christian Church, in the days when men believed in this Tartarology as firmly as they now believe in the results of chemistry or of astronomy.

And now--How is the earth shaken, and the heavens likewise, in that very sense in which the expression is used by him who wrote to the Hebrews? Our conceptions of them are shaken. How much of that mediaeval cosmogony do educated men believe, in the sense in which they believe that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or that if they steal their neighbour's goods they commit a sin?

The earth has been shaken for us, more and more violently, as the years have rolled on. It was shaken when Astronomy told us that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but a tiny planet revolving round a sun in a remote region thereof.

It was shaken when Geology told us that the earth had endured for countless ages, during which continents had become oceans, and oceans continents, again and again. And even now, it is being shaken by researches into the antiquity of man, into the origin and permanence of species, which--let the result be what it will--must in the meanwhile shake for us theories and dogmas which have been undisputed for 1500 years.

And with the rest of our cosmogony, that conception of a physical Tartarus below the earth has been shaken likewise, till good men have been fain to find a fresh place for it in the sun, or in a comet; or to patronize the probable, but as yet unproved theory of a central fire within the earth; not on any scientific grounds, but simply if by any means they can assign a region in space, wherein material torment can be inflicted on the spirits of the lost.

And meanwhile the heavens, the spiritual world, is being shaken no less. More and more frequently, more and more loudly, men are asking--not sceptics merely, but pious men, men who wish to be, and who believe themselves to be, orthodox Christians--more and more loudly are such men asking questions which demand an answer, with a learning and an eloquence, as well as with a devoutness and a reverence for Scripture, which--whether rightly or wrongly employed--is certain to command attention.

Rightly or wrongly, these men are asking, whether the actual and literal words of Scripture really involve the mediaeval theory of an endless Tartarus.

They are saying, "It is not we who deny, but you who assert, endless torments, who are playing fast and loose with the letter of Scripture. You are reading into it conceptions borrowed from Virgil, Dante, Milton, when you translate into the formula 'endless torment' such phrases as 'the outer darkness,' 'the fire of Gehenna,' 'the worm that dieth not;' which, according to all just laws of interpretation, refer not to the next life, but to this life, and specially to the approaching catastrophe of the Jewish nation; or when you say that eternal death really means eternal life--only life in torture."

Rightly or wrongly, they are saying this; and then they add, "We do not yield to you in love and esteem for Scripture. We demand not a looser, but a stricter; not a more metaphoric, but a more literal; not a more contemptuous, but a more reverent interpretation thereof."

So these men speak, rightly or wrongly. And for good or for evil, they will be heard.

And with these questions others have arisen, not new at all--say these men--but to be found, amid many contradictions, in the writings of all the best divines, when they have given up for a moment systems and theories, and listened to the voice of their own hearts; questions natural enough to an age which abhors cruelty, has abolished torture, labours for the reformation of criminals, and debates--rightly or wrongly--about abolishing capital punishment. Men are asking questions about the heaven--the spiritual world--and saying--"The spiritual world? Is it only another material world which happens to be invisible now, but which may become visible hereafter: or is it not rather the moral world--the world of right and wrong? Heaven? Is not the true and real heaven the kingdom of love, justice, purity, beneficence? Is not that the eternal heaven wherein God abides for ever, and with Him those who are like God? And hell? Is it not rather the anarchy of hate, injustice, impurity, uselessness; wherein abides all that is opposed to God?"

And with those thoughts come others about moral retribution--"What is its purpose? Can it--can any punishment have any right purpose save the correction, or the annihilation, of the criminal? Can God, in this respect, be at once less merciful and less powerful than man? Is He so controlled by necessity that He is forced to bring into the world beings whom He knows to be incorrigible, and doomed to endless misery? And if not so controlled, is not the alternative as to His character even more fearful? He bids us copy His justice, His love. Is that His justice, that His love, which if we copied, we should call each other, and deservedly, utterly unjust and unloving? Can there be one morality for God, and another for man, made in the image of God? Are these dark dogmas worthy of a Father who hateth nothing that He hath made, and is perfect in this--that He makes His sun shine on the evil and on the good, and His rain fall on the just and on the unjust, and is good to the unthankful and to the evil? Are they worthy of a Son who, in the fire of His divine charity, stooped from heaven to earth, to toil, to suffer, to die on the Cross, that the world by Him might be saved? Are they worthy of that Spirit which proceeds from the Father and the Son, even that Spirit of boundless charity, and fervent love, by which the Son offered Himself to the Father, a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world--and surely not in vain?"

So men are asking--rightly or wrongly; and they are guarding themselves, at the same time, from the imputation of disbelief in moral retribution; of fancying God to be a careless, epicurean deity, cruelly indulgent to sin, and therefore, in so far, immoral.

They say--"We believe firmly enough in moral retribution. How can we help believing in it, while we see it working around us, in many a fearful shape, here, now, in this life? And we believe that it may work on, in still more fearful shapes, in the life to come. We believe that as long as a sinner is impenitent, he must be miserable; that if he goes on impenitent for ever, he must go on making himself miserable--ay, it may be more and more miserable for ever. Only do not tell us that he must go on. That his impenitence, and therefore his punishment, is irremediable, necessary, endless; and thereby destroy the whole purpose, and we should say, the whole morality, of his punishment. If that punishment be corrective, our moral sense is not shocked by any severity, by any duration: but if it is irremediable, it cannot be corrective; and then, what it is, or why it is, we cannot--or rather dare not--say. We, too, believe in an eternal fire. But because we believe also the Athanasian Creed, which tells us that there is but One Eternal, we believe that that fire must be the fire of God, and therefore, like all that is in God and of God, good and not evil, a blessing and not a curse. We believe that that fire is for ever burning, though men are for ever trying to quench it all day long; and that it has been and will be in every age burning up all the chaff and stubble of man's inventions; the folly, the falsehood, the ignorance, the vice of this sinful world; and we praise God for it; and give thanks to Him for His great glory, that He is the everlasting and triumphant foe of evil and misery, of whom it is written, that our God is a consuming fire." Such words are being spoken, right or wrong.

Such words will bear their fruit, for good or evil. I do not pronounce how much of them is true or false. It is not my place to dogmatize and define, where the Church of England, as by law established, has declined to do so. Neither is it for you to settle these questions. It is rather a matter for your children. A generation more, it may be, of earnest thought will be required, ere the true answer has been found. But it is your duty, if you be educated and thoughtful persons, to face these questions; to consider seriously what these men would have you consider--whether you are believing the exact words of the Bible, and the conclusions of your own reason and moral sense; or whether you are merely believing that cosmogony elaborated in the cloister, that theory of moral retribution pardonable in the middle age, which Dante and Milton sang.

But this I do not hesitate to say--That if we of the clergy can find no other answers to these doubts than those which were reasonable and popular in an age when men racked women, burned heretics, and believed that every Mussulman killed in a crusade went straight to Tartarus--then very serious times are at hand, both for the Christian clergy and for Christianity itself.

What, then, are we to believe and do? Shall we degenerate into a lazy scepticism, which believes that everything is a little true, and everything a little false--in plain words, believes nothing at all? Or shall we degenerate into faithless fears, and unmanly wailings that the flood of infidelity is irresistible, and that Christ has left His Church?

We shall do neither, if we believe the text. That tells us of a firm standing-ground amid the wreck of fashions and opinions. Of a kingdom which cannot be moved, though the heavens pass away like a scroll, and the earth be burnt up with fervent heat.

And it tells us that the King of that kingdom is He, who is called Jesus Christ--the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.

An eternal and changeless kingdom, and an eternal and changeless King. These the Epistle to the Hebrews preaches to all generations.

It does not say that we have an unchangeable cosmogony, an unchangeable eschatology, an unchangeable theory of moral retribution, an unchangeable dogmatic system: not to these does it point the Jews, while their own nation and worship were in their very death-agony, and the world was rocking and reeling round them, decay and birth going on side by side, in a chaos such as man had never seen before. Not to these does the Epistle point the Hebrews: but to the changeless kingdom and to the changeless King.

My friends, do you really believe in that kingdom, and in that King? Do you believe that you are now actually in a kingdom of heaven, which cannot be moved; and that the living, acting, guiding, practical, real King thereof is Christ who died on the Cross?

These are days in which a preacher is bound to ask his congregation--and still more to ask himself--whether he really believes in that kingdom, and in that King; and to bid himself and them, if they have not believed earnestly enough therein, to repent, in this time of Lent, of that at least; to repent of having neglected that most cardinal doctrine of Scripture and of the Christian faith.

But if we really believe in that changeless kingdom and in that changeless King, shall we not--considering who Christ is, the co-equal and co-eternal Son of God--believe also, that if the heavens and the earth are being shaken, then Christ Himself may be shaking them? That if opinions be changing, then Christ Himself may be changing them? That if new truths are being discovered, Christ Himself may be revealing them? That if some of those truths seem to contradict those which He has revealed already, they do not really contradict them? That, as in the sixteenth century, Christ is burning up the wood and stubble with which men have built on His foundation, that the pure gold of His truth may alone be left? It is at least possible; it is probable, if we believe that Christ is a living, acting King, to whom all power is given in heaven and earth, and who is actually exercising that power; and educating Christendom, and through Christendom the whole human race, to a knowledge of Himself, and through Himself of God their Father in heaven.

Should we not say--We know that Christ has been so doing, for centuries and for ages? Through Abraham, through Moses, through the prophets, through the Greeks, through the Romans, and at last through Himself, He gave men juster and wider views of themselves, of the universe, and of God. And even then He did not stop. How could He, who said of Himself, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work"? How could He, if He be the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever? Through the Apostles, and specially through St Paul, He enlarged, while He confirmed, His own teaching. And did He not do the same in the sixteenth century? Did He not then sweep from the minds and hearts of half Christendom beliefs which had been held sacred and indubitable for a thousand years? Why should He not be doing so now? If it be answered, that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was only a return to simpler and purer Apostolic truth--why, again, should it not be so now? Why should He not be perfecting His work one step more, and sweeping away more of man's inventions, which are not integral and necessary elements of the one Catholic faith, but have been left behind, in pardonable human weakness, by our great Reformers? Great they were, and good: giants on the earth, while we are but as dwarfs beside them. But, as the hackneyed proverb says, the dwarf on the giant's shoulders may see further than the giant himself: and so may we.

Oh! that men would approach new truth in something of that spirit; in the spirit of reverence and Godly fear, which springs from a living belief in Christ the living King, which is--as the text tells us--the spirit in which we can serve God acceptably. Oh! that they would serve God; waiting reverently and anxiously, as servants standing in the presence of their Lord, for the slightest sign or hint of His will. Then they would have grace; by which they would receive new thought with grace; gracefully, courteously, fairly, charitably, reverently; believing that, however strange or startling, it may come from Him whose ways are not as our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts; and that he who fights against it, may haply be fighting against God.

True, they would receive all new thought with caution, that conservative spirit, which is the duty of every Christian; which is the peculiar strength of the Englishman, because it enables him calmly and slowly to take in the new, without losing the old which his forefathers have already won for him. So they would be cautious, even anxious, lest in grasping too greedily at seeming improvements, they let go some precious knowledge which they had already attained: but they would be on the look out for improvements; because they would consider themselves, and their generation, as under a divine education. They would prove all things fairly and boldly, and hold fast that which is good; all that which is beautiful, noble, improving and elevating to human souls, minds, or bodies; all that increases the amount of justice, mercy, knowledge, refinement; all that lessens the amount of vice, cruelty, ignorance, barbarism. That at least must come from Christ. That at least must be the inspiration of the Spirit of God: unless the Pharisees were right after all when they said, that evil spirits could be cast out by the prince of the devils.

Be these things as they may, one comfort it will give us, to believe firmly and actively in the changeless kingdom, and in the changeless King. It will give us calm, patience, faith and hope, though the heavens and the earth be shaken around us. For then we shall see that the Kingdom, of which we are citizens, is a kingdom of light, and not of darkness; of truth, and not of falsehood; of freedom, and not of slavery; of bounty and mercy, and not of wrath and fear; that we live and move and have our being not in a "Deus quidam deceptor" who grudges his children wisdom, but in a Father of Light, from whom comes every good and perfect gift; who willeth that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. In His kingdom we are; and in the King whom He has set over it we can have the most perfect trust. For us that King stooped from heaven to earth; for us He was born, for us He toiled, for us He suffered, for us He died, for us He rose, for us He sits for ever at God's right hand. And can we not trust Him? Let Him do what He will. Let Him lead us whither He will. Wheresoever He leads must be the way of truth and life. Whatsoever He does, must be in harmony with that infinite love which He displayed for us upon the Cross. Whatsoever He does, must be in harmony with that eternal purpose by which He reveals to men God their Father. Therefore, though the heaven and the earth be shaken around us, we will trust in Him. For we know that He is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; and that His will and promise is, to lead those who trust in Him into all truth.


Charles Kingsley