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On Being and Immortality

Harm Jan Huidekoper


The present article appeared in The Western Messenger, vol. 3, no. 2 (March 1837), pp. 526-30 .


Individuals perish, says the pantheist, whose God is a mere blind productive power inherent in matter. Individuals perish, but the species continue to reproduce themselves forever. We Christians turn from the sentiments of the pantheist with horror, as subversive of all belief in an intelligent first cause and a superintending Providence; and yet it appears to me that there exists opinions among us, which, by their tendency to hide the agency of the Almighty from our view, lead to a practical species of pantheism.

It is the generally received opinion among Christians that in the beginning God created matter out of nothing, and that afterwards from this matter, the universe and all that it contains was formed. And yet, if we are to judge of the sentiments of mankind by the manner in which they express themselves, the opinion appears to be almost equally universal that, at the creation, a certain energy or power was imparted to the first individuals of each species, whether of plants or animals, by which they have ever since continued to reproduce and perpetuate themselves and do now continue to exist. Now it appears to me that these two opinions are directly at variance with each other, and that the former necessarily excludes the latter. Let us examine this point.

It is a universally admitted axiom in physics that matter is inert. But if it be so, then it is impossible that it can possess any active powers, and hence it is equally impossible that it can, by any power inherent in it, have perpetuated the present order of things. If we examine the vegetable and animal creation, we find every where traces of the most skillful construction, the most wonderful adaptation, and the most perfect order;—and surely these cannot be the result of an indistinguishing energy, imparted to matter ages ago. A moment’s reflection will convince us that, instead of looking to these second causes for the origin of our existence and of all that we see around us, we must attribute it to the continued exercise of the creative power of God. It will convince us that the present races of men, and animals and vegetables, are as much the immediate creatures of God as were the first individuals of their respective species;—that all stand in need, at every moment, of the supporting power of God to continue them in being; and that, if at any time that supporting power should be withdrawn, they would at once sink back into their original state of nonexistence.

In regard to the existence of the human soul, the opinions which prevail appear to me to be equally erroneous with those which are held respecting the material creation. It appears to be almost the universal opinion among those who believe in the immateriality of the soul, that it possesses an inherent immortality, or, in other words, that it is composed of an essence which is in its very nature indestructible. The human soul, say the advocates of its inherent immortality, is indestructible, because it is a simple uncompounded essence. There is, properly speaking, no such thing as destruction. At the death of material bodies, they are not destroyed;—they are merely resolved into their original organic elements, and these enter afterwards again into new combinations. But the soul cannot be thus resolved. It is an uncompounded single essence and must therefore be indestructible.  

Such is the reasoning by which this doctrine is attempted to be supported, and I must acknowledge that to me it appears totally fallacious and unsatisfactory. Its whole force rests on the assumed indestructibility of the organic atoms, into which the material body is resolved. But are these atoms indestructible? Were they not originally created out of nothing? And if so, do they not at every moment require the supporting power of God to prevent them from returning to their original state of non-existence? If they do, then they are not indestructible.

As to the doctrine itself, I believe it to be radically erroneous and the offspring of a mistaken philosophy. Let not the pious reader fear that it is my object to rob him of his hope beyond the grave. God forbid that I should do him such an injury! I am myself a firm believer in the never ending existence of the virtuous; and it is because I cherish this belief that I wish to rest it on a firmer basis than that on which it is placed by the popular faith. What, let us ask, is the prevailing belief? It is that the soul of man is self-existent, understanding, by that term, not that it has created itself;—for all believe that it was created by God;—but that, having been once thus created, it can now continue itself in existence without requiring any further the supporting power of God. Perhaps most persons have never considered this matter in the light in which I place it; and yet, it appears to me the true one. Either the soul of man possesses an inherent essential immortality, or it does not. If it does, then it stands in no further need of the supporting power of God and is self-existent. If it requires this supporting power, then it is not essentially immortal.

To myself, who believe that God alone is self-existent, and that all other existences are constantly dependent on him, it is plain that the human soul does not possess inherent immortality, but is entirely dependant for its continuance in being on the supporting power of God. Self-existence is an incommunicable attribute of the Almighty. Whatever is created can only have a dependant existence, and hence it follows that in every creature; —in the highest seraph as in the worm of dust; —in the human soul as in the human body—there must be a constant tendency to return to that state of non-existence from which they were called into being, and that, were the supporting power of God only intermitted for one moment, they would cease to be.

In resting thus man’s existence after death, not on a supposed inherent immortality, but on the supporting power of his Maker, it appears to me to be placed on its proper foundation. What gives me greater confidence in the views I have embraced than I otherwise should have had is that they appear to be in the perfect harmony with the sacred scriptures. There, man is never spoken of as possessing an inherent immortality; but always as dependent on God for the continuance of his existence. Eternal life is frequently mentioned, but always as a good to be sought, a boon to be given, never as an essential attribute of man. Paul tells us expressly, that God only has immortality (1, Tim. vi. 16). Now this would not be true if men and angels were also by their natures immortal. 

It is not my intention now to inquire in how far the erroneous views of immortality which prevail are connected with and minister to other errors of doctrine which have crept into the popular faith, although such an inquiry might not be uninteresting. Neither do I intend to trace out the doctrine of universal dependence on God to all its results. I shall merely refer to a single one of these.

While to the eye of the multitude, God is hid by his works, the man who is duly sensible of his dependence, feels himself constantly in the immediate presence of his Maker. If he looks within, there every throb of his heart,—every pulsation of his circulating blood,—every thought that passes through his mind, tells him that God is there, strengthening and supporting him. If he looks abroad, there not only the heavens, and the suns and worlds which glisten in the firmament, but every plant, every leaf, every blade of grass speaks to him of God. He sees the supporting power of the Deity in constant exercise around him, in the beasts of the field, in the fowls of the air, and in the insect that sports in the sunbeam, and rejoices in its existence; and from all creation around him a thousand voices arise, calling to him in one harmonious concert: Lo, God is here!—Oh! why can—why do not men realise, as they ought, that they are in the constant presence of their Maker? To the man who should feel at all times this truth as it deserves to be felt, the sentiment of it would become the power of God unto salvation.  


© 2003 American Unitarian Conference