H. B. Swete on eternal life

March 1, 2010

H. B. Swete (1835-1917), a minister of the Church of England and, from 1890 to 1915, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, was one of the great English patristic and biblical scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; his books and articles still retain their value, and, in particular, I have long found his studies of the history of the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit to be among the most enlightening and dependable things written on that subject. Below is transcribed the final chapter, pp. 97-114, of his last book, published posthumously, The Life of the World to Come: Six Addresses given by the late Henry Barclay Swete (London and New York, 1917); it is a lenten sermon, delivered by him in the year 1917 to his parishioners in the village of Hitchin, halfway between London and Cambridge.

Eternal Life and Summary

“I believe in the life everlasting.” So ends the Apostles’ Creed, as we recite it at Mattins and Evensong. But in the Baptismal Office, the sponsor is asked, “Dost thou believe in everlasting life after death?

The old Roman Creed of the second century ended with “the resurrection of the flesh.” When “the life everlasting” first appears in a creed toward the middle of the third century, it takes the place of “the resurrection of the flesh,” and was probably regarded as an alternative for that article. Later on, it followed the Resurrection, as it does now. “The life everlasting” in our present creed is therefore no doubt the life after death, or rather, after the Resurrection. The Church will be raised again, that it may for ever live, in the glorified body, with Christ in the presence of God.

We thought last week of the body in which we shall rise if we are Christ’s. To-day we think of the life which we shall live in the risen body.

But first let us deal with a conception of eternal life which we find in S. John, and which regards it as something not future only, but present, a possession which the Christian man or woman has here and now. At first sight this seems to contradict our Creed, for the Creed, as we have seen, places eternal life after death and after the Resurrection, whereas, according to S. John, it is ours while we are still on earth. “He that believeth on the Son,” he says, “hath eternal life” (John 3: 36); and again, using Christ’s words, “He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6: 54)—where the present gift of eternal life is clearly contrasted with the future gift of the Resurrection. The same identification of eternal life with the present life of faith appears in S. John’s first Epistle. “God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath the life” (1 John 5: 11, 12). He has it here and now, and does not only hope for it hereafter.

But what is eternal life, according to S. John? We have the answer in John xvii. 3, at the beginning of our Lord’s great high-priestly prayer. “This is life eternal, that they should know Thee the only true God, and Him whom Thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.” The knowledge of God and of Christ which comes of faith, love, fellowship, is a life which death cannot touch. And this, in its beginnings, every sincere Christian has already. It will be realized more fully after death, and yet far more after resurrection; but it begins on earth; the resurrection of the body cannot begin it, where it has not been before, but will only perfect and complete it. Our knowledge of God here is, as S. Paul would say, the first-fruits, the earnest of our great inheritance, secured to us already by the gift of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ. There is therefore no disagreement between S. John’s teaching and the Creed; both are true, though they represent different aspects of the truth. S. John thinks of eternal life as already begun in the life of the Spirit which is ours on earth; the Creed speaks of the same life as perfected, after death and resurrection, in heaven. To-day we will take the Creed’s view of life eternal, and consider it in its future development, as it will be when our nature is perfected by the resurrection of the body.

1. In the life beyond the Resurrection eternal life will consist of the knowledge of God and of Christ. The partial knowledge which is ours here, S. Paul says (1 Cor 13: 8 ff.), shall be “done away.” We speak and think now of the great realities of our faith as children speak and think of the things that concern their elders. The strange conceptions that children form, the crude or naïve words in which they express their conceptions, fall away from them as they grow to maturity; the man puts away “childish things.” They were appropriate in childhood, but if they are retained by the adult, they mark him as of feeble mind. So, it may be, the terms and forms of our theology will pass from us; we shall need them no more. Creeds, exact definitions of our faith, dogmas, and articles of religion, are fitting and necessary now; to try to free ourselves from them is to behave like children who copy their seniors, and merely make themselves ridiculous. But the sons of the Resurrection will have reached maturity, and will no longer need the things of childhood. They will see “face to face”; they will see God in the person of Jesus Christ; they will know God in the same intimate way in which He now knows them. And as their knowledge of Him will be vastly greater than ours, so their spiritual life will be incomparably fuller. Now it is a life animated by faith and hope; then it will be a life of vision upon vision. Now we see as in a mirror, the metal mirror of ancient days, which gave a dim and broken reflection; things spiritual and heavenly are riddles at the meaning of which we can only guess. In the coming age the riddles of life will be cleared up and solved in the light of God. “What thou knowest not now thou shalt know hereafter” (John 13: 7); and that full, ever-growing knowledge will be eternal life matured.

2. Eternal life is perfect knowledge of God: quem nosse vivere—”in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life.” But it is more than knowledge; it is (secondly) possession. It is, again to quote S. John (2 Jn 9), to have Christ, and so to have God; to “have both the Father and the Son”: to possess God as our own.

Like so many other New Testament ideas, this thought runs back into the Old Testament. In the partition of the land of Canaan among the tribes, the Levites were passed over, and had no territory assigned to them, because their tribe had God Himself for its portion. The Psalmists take up this conception, and apply it to themselves. “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance, and of my cup…. I have a goodly heritage” (Ps 16: 5, 6); “God is my portion for ever” (Ps 73: 25); “thou art my portion in the land of the living” (Ps 142: 5).

Jesus Christ, and God in Christ, is the portion of the Church. There is indeed a reverse to this truth, or rather a complementary truth, that the Church is Christ’s portion, His particular property, His purchased possession. “Ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s,” S. Paul writes to the Church at Corinth (1 Cor 3: 23). But if we are His, so also is He ours. His whole Person and work is ours; He is “made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1: 30). His life, His death, His Resurrection, are all ours; they are made over to us in the Sacraments; we appropriate them by faith; each of us can say, as Thomas did, when he saw and believed, “My Lord and my God.” But in Him we say “Our Father”; His God and Father is our God and Father also. And to have Christ for our own is to have Him who is the Life; it is “life indeed” (1 Tim 6: 19). Even here a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of his earthly possessions, but in the abundant supply of the supernatural life which flows from the Head of the Church into all its true members. But the risen saints will no longer live by faith, as the just do here on earth; they will see their great possession. They will no longer draw supplies of grace from Him through sacramental channels, but by immediate contact and fellowship with the Lord. They stand before the Lamb; they follow Him whithersoever He goeth, and He guides them to fountains of the water of life. He is theirs, and they are His; and the mutual relation, realized and enjoyed, is the deepest, the fullest life.

3. But eternal life is not privilege only, or enjoyment; it is service; it is work.

We make a great mistake if we connect with our conception of Heaven the thought of rest from work. Rest from toil, from weariness, from exhaustion—yes; rest from work, from productiveness, from service—no. That abundant and increasing vitality of spirit and of body which is poured into the saints from the glorified Christ, that life from the very source of life, is not to be spent in idle harping upon harps of gold, reclining on clouds, or wandering aimlessly through the paradise of God, clad in white robes and with crowned heads. These apocalyptic pictures are symbols of a bliss which passes words; but there is another side to the picture, which is too often forgotten in our anticipations of the life to come. “They rest not day and night” (Rev 4: 8); they “serve day and night” (Rev 7: 15); “His servants shall do Him service” (Rev 22: 3).

The activities of the heavenly life are beyond our knowledge, as they are at present beyond our powers. From Him that sits on the throne to the least of saints at His feet, all are at work. “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” said our Lord (Jn 5: 17). It is the law of the Divine life. It is the law of all life which is worthy of the name. Here work is broken, necessarily—rightly broken—by intervals of rest. God has given us the night for sleep, as He has given the day for work. And there are longer intervals caused by sickness, or enforced abstinence from work, and the last, immeasurable interval of death. To each of us “the night cometh, when no man can work” (Jn 9: 4). But beyond, in the age to come, there lie illimitable fields of work. Work without weariness, without rest, because there is no need of rest, and no desire for it; work which is rest and joy, the keen delight of overflowing vitality, perfect health, unclouded brain, untiring strength, absolute devotion.

And all this work is service. “His servants shall serve Him.” It is one of the best features of our day that so much time and thought are given by men and women to the “service of man.” Christ served humanity: “the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mk 10: 45); not to be served, but to serve, and even to give His life for mankind. It is Christ-like to serve man. Yet to serve God, as they will serve Him in the world to come, is greater and nobler. But let us understand what we mean by this. “Divine Service,” as usually understood, means the public prayers of the Church. We inherit the phrase from monasticism, which spoke of the hours of prayer as the Opus or Servitium Dei, the “work” or “service” of God. But we are mistaken if we think of the life of heaven as worship only in our sense of the word. Worship, no doubt, it will be, all of it, because in that world all work will be worship, and every act will be brought into relation with God, will be a doing of His will, an offering of a free heart to Him, a priestly service acceptable to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. We shall serve as priests and kings; for to serve God, as the old Collect says, is to reign. It is perfect freedom; it is royalty. To serve God without intermission in every thought and act is the highest glory, and the ultimate goal of human nature.

4. Will eternal service grow monotonous, as the ages advance? Many lives here are saddened by monotony. There is the same round of trivial duties to be discharged day by day, without any prospect of change or incident before the end. Men and women in this position become too often mere machines; their drab existence works itself out in unbroken dulness till the hour of death cuts it short. Imagine a deathless life of this kind, with immensely increased powers, to be employed eternally in the repetition of certain acts which at last become mechanical!

Not such is the eternal life to which we are called. It is not only a life of knowledge, of service, but a life of unceasing progress towards the infinite Wisdom and Goodness and Power.

There is in the world as we know it much progress which is hurtful and downward in its tendency. “Whosover goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ (so writes S. John in his second Epistle” hath not God.” Those are weighty words, worthy to be borne in mind in an age which attaches inordinate value to mere progressiveness. True progress is not found in breaking away from the old ways, but in abiding in the teaching of Christ and His Spirit in the Church. There is an apparent contradiction here, for how can we abide, and yet advance? It is a paradox, like much else in scripture; but Christian experience proves it true. Those make the best progress in religion who hold fast by the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and not those who drift away from their moorings, rudderless upon a sea of doubt.

For the saints in the world to come there can be no change in the object of their faith and hope and love. They have Christ, they have God, and they are satisfied. There can be no monotony in the contemplation and worship of the Infinite. Their great possession is unchangeable, but also inexhaustible; no change is possible where all is love and truth. The centre of the heavenly life is fixed and immovable, but the circumference may ever be advancing toward the centre; the saints may ever be drawing nearer and nearer to a goal which they can never reach. There may be progress in knowledge, progress in enjoyment, progress in service—a progress which at every point will open up new wonders, new opportunities, new outlooks into a greater future, and as that future unfolds itself, new and unsuspected scopes for the energies of redeemed men, new ways of fellowship with God in Christ, new companionships with the good and great of past generations, and with angelic beings who have watched and guarded us in life, and rejoiced over our repentance, and are ready to welcome us into the eternal mansions, and will share our worship and our work, our service and our joy, in the ages to come.

But may we carry the idea of time into the life beyond? And if not, how can there be progress? The true answer seems to be that which has been given by a great living philosopher (Bergson), that while what he calls “clock-time” is limited to the present life, “duration” continues in the world to come. That is, as I understand him to mean, although we cannot think of divisions of time, such as hours and days and years, as existing in a future life, there will be succession there, age following age, though no age, as it passes, takes away from the sum total of that deathless life. Certainly this is assumed everywhere in the Bible, where the next world is called “the ages of the ages” (e.g., Phil 4: 20), and even once by S. Paul “all the generations of the age of ages” (Eph 3: 21). As the ages roll by, only that other ages may succeed them, the happy saints will find themselves nearer to God and to Christ, not raised as on earth by a cross, but drawn toward the Throne by growing love and fellowship—of which there is no limit, and no end.

* * *

Let me spend the rest of our time to-day in gathering up the threads of these six instructions into one final view of the life of the world to come.

1. The immortality of the soul—i.e., its survival after the death of the body—is one of the oldest beliefs in the world. It was held in Egypt some 3,000 years before Christ, and in Babylonia, before Abraham went out of Ur to the land of Canaan. Israel inherited this belief, and in some of the Psalms it is expressed in noble words which Christians can make their own. In Greece and at Rome it was part of the popular faith, but by the Christian era this belief had gradually lost its hold upon the educated classes in the Gentile world, who were, as S. Paul says, practically without hope of a future life. The Gospel restored hope, and made it for the first time a living reality. Our Lord, but His teaching and His own Resurrection from the dead, threw a bright life on the life of the future. Immortality became, in His illuminating presence, far more than a survival of the soul after death; for Christians it means the sure and certain hope of the ultimate restoration both of soul and body to a blessed eternal life with God.

2. Of the life of the soul in the interval between death and resurrection we know comparatively little. But the dark exile of the Hebrew Sheol, the gloom and dreadfulness of the Greek Hades, have been robbed of their terrors by our Lord’s descent into the state of the departed. For His own faithful people He has converted Sheol and Hades into Abraham’s bosom, into the Garden of the Lord. He Himself remained in Hades or Paradise, in His human soul, but for a few hours, long enough, however, to welcome the spirit of the penitent robber and to proclaim the news of His victory to the spirits in prison. But though He is not now in Hades, but in Heaven, He vouchsafes His spiritual presence to the faithful departed after a manner of which we have but faint experience here; they are “at home with the Lord,” they are “with Christ, which is very far better” than life on earth can be. And to be with Him, in this fuller sense, must surely be to be purged from the remains of all earthly imperfections, and to grow more and more prepared for the final life of the Resurrection which they still await.

3. Of this great hope, the hope of the resurrection of the body, we have the guarantee in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. That event is the keystone of the arch on which our Christianity depends; “if Christ hath not been raised, your faith is vain.”

The evidence for the historical truth of our Lord’s Resurrection comes to us (a) through the Gospels, (b) the witness of S. Paul in 1 Cor. xv. It turns on two point (1) the empty tomb, and (2) the appearances of the forty days.

This evidence does not compel assent; it might have been stronger. All we affirm is that it is as strong as we can reasonably expect, and sufficient, if we take into consideration the character and claim of the Person who rose. If Jesus Christ was what His character, teaching, and work declare Him to have been, it is not surprising, it is in accordance with the probabilities of the case, that He should conquer death. It was “not possible that He should be holden of it.”

But the Resurrection of our Lord is more than a fact. It is a moral force, of which all believers are conscious. They know the power of His Resurrection, and they, apart from the external evidence, have the witness in themselves.

4. On the question of a future resurrection of the dead the Jews were sharply divided; the Sadducean priesthood denied, the Pharisaic scribes affirmed it. Our Lord, while rebuking the unbelief of the Sadducees, could not make common cause with the Pharisees, and for the most part He seems to have said little on the subject. But three passages of S. John’s Gospel give us the essentially Christian view. They connect the future resurrection with Jesus Christ. It is His voice which will call forth all who are in the tombs. He is “the Resurrection and the Life,” and He will raise those who believe in Him to eternal life. He conveys His life to them through His Flesh and Blood, through His Incarnation and His Sacrifice, which He gives us to assimilate through sacramental channels, and by feeding upon which our souls and bodies are preserved and immortalized.

Thus far we are led by the teaching of our Lord in the fourth Gospel. The Spirit of Christ in S. Paul carries us further. We learn to connect our future resurrection with His. Christ is the first-fruits; the rest of us are the harvest. Christ is the last Adam, who came to repair the ruin caused by the first Adam’s sin; “as all in Adam, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” This much all humanity receives from the Incarnation. But they that are Christ’s, who are one with Him in faith and love and hope, who have not only a common nature with the Incarnate Son, but a common life, shall not only rise, but rise to the resurrection of life; following in their own order, rank after rank, in the great procession of the returning Christ, and entering with Him in His eternal joy.

5. But “with what body” are the risen saints to “come”? The Apostles’ Creed in its original form speaks of the resurrection of the flesh, and this phrase is still retained in the interrogative form which is put to sponsors at the baptism of an infant. It was meant to guard the Church against the mistake of supposing that the resurrection is merely moral or spiritual, and that it is in fact “past already,” taking effect at the font, and in the new life which ought to follow. The Church taught, in opposition to this error, that the flesh shall rise, that material organism of some kind will be restored to every human being at the coming of the Lord. But the word “flesh” in this connexion is open to grave misunderstanding, and in early Christian times the common belief was that the scattered dust will be brought together again and every limb and organ replaced.

It is not thus, however, that S. Paul answers the question with what body the risen are to come. “With a spiritual body,” he replies; not meaning by this a body made of spirit, but a body fitted to be the companion and servant of the spirit: a body “celestial,” adapted to the heavenly order, as contrasted with the “terrestrial,” earthly body of our present tabernacle, our present humiliation.

“Is this incredible to you?” S. Paul seems to ask. Then look at the yearly miracle of the spring: at the resurrection body which God gives to the seed that you yourself sow in field or garden. You sow a dusky grain; part of it decays and dies, and that which lives, the vital germ of the young plant, comes up a green blade, wholly different in appearance from the seed. So God in His field will bring incorruption out of corruption, glory out of dishonour, the spiritual from the animal, life from death. The last Adam is “a quickening spirit,” “the Lord from heaven.” “We have borne the image of the earthy,” of the first Adam; “let us bear the image of the heavenly”—in our spirits first, in hearts and lives lifted up to our ascended and glorified Head; and so when He returns we shall bear the image of His transfigured human form.

6. To that glorious risen life no death can come. A life in which God is all in all, which consists in the knowledge of God, the possession of God, the service of God, has no limit to its vitality, its progress, its joy. It is life indeed, life that answers fully to its name, life that satisfies all the cravings of the human spirit, which God has made for Himself. It is ours in Christ. May we all steadfastly believe this faith of the Resurrection life! May we embrace and ever hold fast this blessed hope!

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