The first proposition of my theory is that the death, or practical extinction, of the soul as a conscious entity is the necessary result of unbelief in immortality.
The second proposition is that the soul, having attained immortality through belief, is then subject to the law of rewards and punishments "according to the deeds done in the body".
The same propositions are more sententiously expressed in Romans ii. 12: "For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law".
In other words, the condition precedent to the attainment of immortality, or salvation, - that is, the saving of the soul from death, - is belief. The condition precedent to the attainment of eternal bliss and the avoidance of the punishments incident to sin, is righteousness.
It will thus be seen that if it can be shown that these two propositions are necessarily true, we shall avoid, on the one hand, the incongruous idea that belief"will atone for all sin; and, on the other, the equally incongruous idea that the extinction of the soul is the necessary consequence of all sin.
In discussing the first proposition we shall first inquire what are the inherent probabilities regarding the meaning which Christ attached to the words which are quoted above. Is it probable, or even possible, that he could have taught that belief alone was a sufficient atonement for the sins of the wicked? Knowing, as all must know who have followed his career and noted his sayings, his utter abhorrence of all wickedness; reading, as all may read, his sublime code of ethics and morals, together with the awful maledictions pronounced upon all violations of that code, and the punishments which he held before the world as a consequence of sin, - it is simply impossible rationally to conceive the idea that he taught that all consequences of a life of sin could be avoided by belief. It is a self-evident proposition that a man may believe in Christ, may believe in immortality, and at the same time be steeped in all manner of wickedness and crime. No more devout believers can be found in all Christendom than those of an unfortunate race in America who are proverbial alike for their devoted piety and for their propensity to steal on their way home from prayer-meeting; unless we except the bandits of Italy, who are as noted for their strict observance of the forms of the Church as they are for the fact that they live by the perpetration of murder and robbery.
Unfortunately, our illustrations cannot be drawn exclusively from any one race or nation. In every Christian society there are all too many devout believers who live in constant violation of every law, human and Divine. It is an insult to the intelligence of Christ and of humanity to hold the monstrous doctrine that the belief of these men can shield them from the punishment due to infamy, or that they can be adequately punished, "according to their deeds," by annihilation.
On the other hand, it is impossible to believe that Christ summarized all the virtues, human and Divine, in the one word belief, or that by the employment of that word he simply meant that all who live pure and virtuous lives before God and man will be entitled to the rewards of heaven. If this was all that he meant, he taught nothing new, either to the Jewish nation or to any other civilized nation then in existence; for the Hebrews had been taught the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, of heaven and of hell, long before the appearance of the Messiah. It is true that Moses did not teach the Israelites any doctrine of the future world, and very vague mention is made of it in the later books of the Old Testament. It is a historical fact, nevertheless, that before the advent of Jesus the Jews had become imbued with the Greek doctrine of Hades, which was an intermediate waiting station between this life and the judgment. In this were situated both Paradise and Gehenna, the one on the right and the other on the left, and into these two compartments the spirits of the dead were separated, according to their deserts.
Jesus found this doctrine already in existence, and in enforcing his moral precepts and in his parables he employed the symbols which the people understood, neither denying nor affirming their literal verity. I remark, therefore, that in simply teaching the doctrine of future rewards and punishments he taught nothing new; and, in that sense, he is no more entitled to be considered the Saviour of mankind than would be any other successful teacher of the same doctrine.
We are, therefore, forced back to a literal interpretation of the statements under consideration. In this sense they can have but one meaning, and that is, that in the absence of belief in immortality, the soul cannot have a conscious existence. Reasoning from known facts, there is no other rational conclusion. In explanation of the meaning of "conscious existence" in the sense in which I have employed that phrase, it is only necessary to direct the attention of the intelligent reader to the accepted definition and doctrine of consciousness. "In taking a comprehensive survey of the mental phenomena," says Sir William Hamilton, "these all seem to comprise one essential element, or to be possible only under one necessary condition. This element or condition is consciousness, or the knowledge that I - that the ego exists, in some determinate state."1 Again, he compares consciousness to "an internal light, by means of which, and which alone, what passes in the mind is rendered visible." 2
The existence of a man without the knowledge of sensations or of mental operations would be one without consciousness, and would constitute a purely vegetative existence as long as it continued. One can readily understand this condition in the objective mind from the observation of physical phenomena. It is equally comprehensible how the subjective mind, or soul, may be deprived of a conscious existence when we remember the fundamental law of its being, the law of suggestion. We have already seen how the law of suggestion operates upon the soul in cases of cataleptic trance, where the suggestion is made that the patient is dead. In that case the suggestion was believed implicitly, and the preparations for the funeral did not disturb the equanimity of the patient in the least. Nor did the incongruity of the situation suggest itself to the patient; namely, the idea of being dead and of thinking of being dead at the same time.
1 Metaphysics, p. 126.