If, however, his premises be granted, and the narrow issue kept in view, the argument may be admitted as perfectly satisfactory. From what we know of the present order of things, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there will be a future state of rewards and punishments, distributed according to ethical law. When the argument from analogy seems to go beyond this, a peculiar difficulty starts up. Let it be granted that our happiness and misery in this life depend upon our conduct - are, in fact, the rewards and punishments attached by God to certain modes of action, the natural conclusion from analogy would seem to be that our future happiness or the reverse will probably depend upon our actions in the future state. Butler, on the other hand, seeks to show that analogy leads us to believe that our future state will depend upon our present conduct. His argument, that the punishment of an imprudent act often follows after a long interval may be admitted, but does not advance a single step towards the conclusion that imprudent acts will be punished hereafter.
So, too, with the attempt to show that from the analogy of the present life we may not unreasonably infer that virtue and vice will receive their respective rewards and punishments hereafter; it may be admitted that virtuous and vicious acts are naturally looked upon as objects of reward or punishment, and treated accordingly, but we may refuse to allow the argument to go further, and to infer a perfect distribution of justice dependent upon our conduct here. Butler could strengthen his argument only by bringing forward prominently the absolute requirements of the ethical consciousness, in which case he would have approximated to Kant's position with regard to this very problem. That he did not do so is, perhaps, due to his strong desire to use only such premises as his adversaries the deists were willing to allow.
As against the deists, however, he may be allowed to have made out his point, that the substantial doctrines of natural religion are not opposed to reason and experience, and may be looked upon as credible. The positive proof of them is to be found in revealed religion, which has disclosed to us not only these truths, but also a further scheme not discoverable by the natural light. Here, again, Butler joins issue with his opponents. Revealed religion had been declared to be nothing but a republication of the truths of natural religion (Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation), and all revelation had been objected to as impossible. To show that such objections are invalid, and that a revelation is at least not impossible, Butler makes use mainly of his doctrine of human ignorance. Revelation had been rejected because it lay altogether beyond the sphere of reason and could not therefore be grasped by human intelligence. But the same is true of nature; there are in the ordinary course of things inexplicabilities; indeed we may be said with truth to know nothing, for there is no medium between perfect and completed comprehension of the whole system of things, which we manifestly have not, and mere faith grounded on probability.
Is it unreasonable to suppose that in a revealed system there should be the same superiority to our intelligence? If we cannot explain or foretell by reason what the exact course of events in nature will be, is it to be expected that we can do so with regard to the wider scheme of God's revealed providence? Is it not probable that there will be many things not explicable by us? From our experience of the course of nature it would appear that no argument can be brought against the possibility of a revelation. Further, though it is the province of reason to test this revealed system, and though it be granted that, should it contain anything immoral, it must be rejected, yet a careful examination of the particulars will show that there is no incomprehensibility or difficulty in them which has not a counterpart in nature. The whole scheme of revealed principles is, therefore, not unreasonable, and the analogy of nature and natural religion would lead us to infer its truth. If, finally, it be asked, how a system professing to be revealed can substantiate its claim, the answer is, by means of the historical evidences, such as miracles and fulfilment of prophecy.
It would be unfair to Butler's argument to demand from it answers to problems which had not in his time arisen, and to which, even if they had then existed, the plan of his work would not have extended. Yet it is at least important to ask how far, and in what sense, the Analogy can be regarded as a positive and valuable contribution to theology. What that work has done is to prove to the consistent deist that no objections can be drawn from reason or experience against natural or revealed religion, and, consequently, that the things objected to are not incredible and may be proved by external evidence. But the deism of the 17th century is a phase of thought that has no living reality now, and the whole aspect of the religious problem has been completely changed. To a generation that has been moulded by the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, by the historical criticism of modern theology, and by all that has been done in the field of comparative religion, the argument of the Analogy cannot but appear to lie quite outside the field of controversy. To Butler the Christian religion, and by that he meant the orthodox Church of England system, was a moral scheme revealed by a special act of the divine providence, the truth of which was to be judged by the ordinary canons of evidence.
The whole stood or fell on historical grounds. A speculative construction of religion was abhorrent to him, a thing of which he seems to have thought the human mind naturally incapable. The religious consciousness does not receive from him the slightest consideration. The Analogy, in fact, has and can have but little influence on the present state of theology; it was not a book for all time, but was limited to the problems of the period at which it appeared.