Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“If the tree fall toward the south or toward the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it shall be” (Ecclesiastes 11:3).
There is a hovering hope in the mind of a vast multitude that there will be an opportunity in the next world to correct the mistakes of this world; that, if we do make complete shipwreck of our earthly life, it will be on a shore up which we may walk to a palace; that, as a defendant may lose his case in the Circuit Court, and carry it up to the Supreme Court or Court of Chancery and get a reversal of judgement in his behalf, all the costs being thrown over on the other party, so, if we fail in the earthly trial, we may in the higher jurisdiction of eternity have the judgement of the lower court set aside, all the costs remitted, and we may be victorious defendants forever.
My object in this sermon is to show that common sense, as well as my text, declares that such an expectation is chimerical [fantasy]. You say that the impenitent man, having gotten into the next world and seeing the disaster, will, as a result of that disaster, turn. But you can find ten thousand instances in this world of men who have done wrong and distress overtook them suddenly. Did the distress heal them? No. They went right on.
That man was flung of dissipations. “You must stop drinking,” said the doctor, “and quit the fast life you are leading, or it will destroy you.” The patient suffers paroxysm [fit] after paroxysm; but, under skillful medical treatment, he begins to sit up, begins to walk about the room, begins to go to business. And, lo, he goes back to the same grog-shops for his morning dram [shot of whiskey], his evening dram, and his in-between drams. Flat down again! Same doctor. Same physical anguish. Same medical warning.
Now, the illness is more protracted; the liver, more stubborn; the stomach, more irritable; and the digestive organs, more rebellious. But after a while he is out again, goes back to the same dram-shops, and goes the same round of sacrilege against his physical health.
He sees that his downward course is ruining his household, that his life is a perpetual perjury against his marriage vow, that his brokenhearted woman is so unlike the roseate young wife that he married that her old schoolmates do not recognize her, that his sons are to be taunted for a lifetime by the father’s drunkenness, and that the daughters are to pass into life under the scar of a disreputable ancestor. He is drinking up their happiness, their prospects for this life, and, perhaps, for the life to come. Sometimes an appreciation of what he is doing comes on him. His nervous system is all a tangle. From crown of head to sole of foot he is one aching, rasping, crucifying, damning torture. Where is he? In hell on earth. Does it reform him?
After a while he has delirium tremens, with a whole jungle of hissing reptiles let out on his pillow, and his screams horrify the neighbors as he dashes out of his bed, crying: “Take these things off me!”
As he sits, pale and convalescent, the doctor says: “Now I want to have a plain talk with you, my dear fellow. The next attack of this kind you have will take you beyond all medical skill, and you will die.”
He gets better and goes into the same cycle again. This time medicine takes no effect. Consulting physicians agree in saying there is no hope. Death ends the scene.
That process of inebriation, warning, and dissipation is going on within stone’s throw of this church, going on in all the neighborhoods of Christendom. Pain does not correct. Suffering does not reform. What is true in one sense is true in all senses, and will forever be so, and yet men are expecting in the next world purgatorial rejuvenation [another chance].
Take up the printed reports of the prisons of the United States, and you will find that the vast majority of the incarcerated have been there before, some of them four, five, and six times. With a million illustrations all working the other way in this world, people are expecting that distress in the next state will be salvatory [saving]. You cannot imagine any worse torture in any other world than that which some men have suffered here, and without any salutary consequence [benefit].
Furthermore, the prospect of a reformation in the next world is more improbable than a reformation here. In this world, the life started with innocence of infancy. In the case supposed, the other life will open with all the accumulated bad habits of many years. Surely, it is easier to build a strong ship out of new timber than out of an old hulk that has been ground up in the breakers. If starting with innocence in this life a man does not become godly, what prospect is there in the next world starting with sin? Surely the sculptor has more prospect of making a fine statue out of a block of pure white Parian [porcelain] marble than out of an old black rock seamed and cracked with the storms of a half-century. Surely on a clean, white sheet of paper it is easier to write a deed or a will than on a sheet of paper all scribbled, blotted, and torn from top to bottom. Yet men think that, though the life that began here comparatively perfect turned out badly, the next life will succeed, though it starts with a dead failure.
“But,” says someone, “I think we ought to have a chance in the next life, because this life is so short it allows only small opportunity. We hardly have time to turn around between cradle and tomb, the wood of the one almost touching the marble of the other.”
Do you know what made the ancient deluge a necessity? The longevity of the antediluvians. They were worse in the second century of their lifetime than in the first hundred years; still worse in the third century; still worse all the way on to seven, eight, and nine hundred years. And the earth had to be washed, scrubbed, soaked, and anchored clear out of sight for more than a month before it could be made fit for decent people to live in. Longevity never cures impenitency.
All the pictures of Time represent him with a scythe to cut, but I never saw any picture of Time with a case of medicines to heal. Seneca says that Nero for the first five years of his public life was set up for an example of clemency and kindness, but his path all the way descended until at sixty-eight he became a suicide. If eight hundred years did not make antediluvians any better, but only made them worse, the ages of eternity could have no effect except prolonging depravity.
“But,” says someone, “in the future state evil surroundings will be withdrawn and elevated influences substituted, and hence expurgation [altered], sublimation [made acceptable], and glorification [eradicated].”
But the righteous, all their sins forgiven, have passed on into a beatific state, and, consequently, the unsaved will be left alone. It cannot be expected that Dr Duff, who exhausted himself in teaching Hindus the way to heaven, and Dr Abeel, who gave his life in the evangelization of China, and Adoniram Judson, who toiled for the redemption of Burma, should be sent down by some celestial missionary society to educate those who wasted all their earthly existence. Evangelistic and missionary efforts are ended. The entire kingdom of the morally bankrupt by themselves, from where are the salvatory influences to come? Can one speckled and bad apple in a barrel of diseased apples turn the other apples good? Can those who are themselves down help others up? Can those who have themselves failed in the business of the soul pay the debts of their spiritual insolvents? Can a million wrongs make one right?
Poneropolis was a city where King Philip of Thracia put all the bad people of his kingdom. If any man had opened a primary school at Poneropolis, I do not think the parents from other cities would have sent their children there. Instead of amendment in the other world, all the associations, now that the good are evolved, will be degenerating and going down. You would not want to send a man to a cholera or yellow fever hospital for his health; and the great lazaretto [quarantine] of the next world, containing the diseased and plague-struck, will be a poor place for moral recovery. If the surroundings in this world were crowded of temptation, the surroundings of the next world, after the righteous have passed up and on, will be a 1000 percent more crowded of temptation.
The Count of Châteaubriand made his little son sleep at night at the top of a castle turret, where the winds howled and where specters were said to haunt the place; and while the mother and sisters almost died with fright, the son tells us that the process gave him nerves that could not tremble and a courage that never faltered.
But I don’t think that towers of darkness and the spectral world swept by Sirocco [wind from the Sahara] and Euroclydon [Mediterranean storm] will ever fit one for the land of eternal sunshine. I wonder what is the curriculum of that college of Inferno, where, after proper preparation by the sins of this life, the candidate enters, passing on from freshman class of depravity to sophomore of abandonment, from sophomore to junior, from junior to senior, and graduation day comes, and with diploma signed by President Satan, and other professorial demoniacs attesting that the candidate has been long enough under their drill, he passes up to enter heaven! Pandemonium, a preparative course for heavenly admission! Ah, my friends, Satan and his cohorts have fitted uncounted multitudes for ruin, but never fitted one soul for happiness.
Further, it would not be safe for this world if men had another chance in the next. If it had been announced that, however wickedly a man might act in this world, he could fix it up all right in the next, society would be terribly demoralized, and the human race demolished in a few years. The fear that if we are bad and unforgiven here, it will not be well for us in the next existence is the chief influence that keeps civilization from rushing back to semi-barbarism; semi-barbarism, from rushing back to midnight savagery; and midnight savagery, from rushing back to extinction; for it is the astringent impression of all nations, Christian and heathen, that there is no future chance for those who have wasted this life.
Multitudes of men who are kept within bounds would say, “Go to, now! Let me get all out of this life there is in it. Come, gluttony, inebriation, uncleanness, revenge, and all sensualities, and wait on me! My life may be somewhat shortened in this world by dissoluteness, but that will only make heavenly indulgence on a larger scale the sooner possible. I will overtake the saints at last, and will enter the heavenly temple only a little later than those who behaved themselves here. I will on my way to heaven take a little wider excursion than those who were on earth pious, and I shall go to heaven via gehenna and via sheol.” Another chance in the next world means free license and wild abandonment in this.
Suppose you were a party in an important case at law, and you knew from consultation with judges and attorneys that it would be tried twice, and the first trial would be of little importance, but that the second would decide everything. For which trial would you make the most preparation? for which retain the ablest attorneys? for which be most anxious about the attendance of witnesses? You would put all the stress on the second trial, all the anxiety, all the expenditure, saying, “The first is nothing, the last is everything.” Give the race assurance of a second and more important trial in the subsequent life, and all the preparation for eternity would be post-mortem, post-funeral, post-sepulchral, and the world with one jerk would be pitched off into impiety and godlessness.
Further, let me ask why a chance should be given in the next world if we have refused innumerable chances in this one? Suppose you give a banquet, and you invite a large number of friends, but one man declines to come, or treats your invitation with indifference. You in the course of twenty years give twenty banquets, and the same man is invited to them all, and treats them all in the same obnoxious way. After a while you move to another house, larger and better, and you again invite your friends, but send no invitation to the man who declined or neglected the other invitations. Are you to blame? Has he a right to expect to be invited after all the indignities he has done you?
God in this world has invited us all to the banquet of His grace. He invited us by His Providence and His Spirit 365 days of every year since we knew our right hand from our left. If we declined it every time, or treated the invitation with indifference, and gave twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years of indignity on our part toward the Banqueter, and at last He spreads the banquet in a more luxurious and kingly place, set in heavenly gardens, have we a right to expect Him to invite us again? Have we a right to blame Him if He does not invite us?
If twelve gates of salvation stood open twenty years or fifty years for our admission, and at the end of that time they are closed, can we complain of it and say, “These gates ought to be open again. Give us another chance”? If the steamer is to sail for Hamburg, and we want to get to Germany by that line, and we read in every evening and every morning newspaper that it will sail on a certain day—for two weeks we have that advertisement before our eyes—and then we go down to the docks fifteen minutes after it has shoved off into the stream and say, “Come back. Give me another chance. It is not fair to treat me in this way. Swing up to the dock again, throw out planks, and let me come on board.” Such behavior would invite arrest as a madman.
And if, after the gospel ship has lain at anchor before our eyes for years and years, and all the benign voices of earth and heaven have urged us to get on board, as she might sail away at any moment, and after a while she sails without us, is it common sense to expect her to come back? You might as well go out on the Highlands at Neversink and call to the RMS Aurania after she has been three days out, and expect her to return, as to call back an opportunity for heaven when it once has sped away. All heaven offered us as a gratuity, and for a lifetime we refuse to take it, and then rush on the bosses of Jehovah’s buckler demanding another chance. There ought to be, there can be, there will be no such thing as posthumous opportunity. Thus, our common sense agrees with my text—“If the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it shall be.”
You see that this idea lifts this world up from an unimportant way-station to a platform of stupendous issues, and makes all eternity whirl around this hour. But one trial for which all the preparation must be made in this world, or never made at all. That piles up all the emphases, all the climaxes, and all the destinies into life here. No other chance! Oh, how that augments the value and the importance of this chance!
Alexander the Great, with his army, used to surround a city, and then would lift a great light in token to the people that, if they surrendered before that light went out, all would be well. But if the light went out, then the battering-rams would swing against the wall, and demolition and disaster would follow.
All we need do for our present and everlasting safety is to make surrender to Christ, the King and Conqueror—surrender of our hearts, surrender of our lives, surrender of everything. And He keeps a great light burning, light of gospel invitation, light kindled with the wood of the cross and flaming up against the dark night of our sin and sorrow. Surrender while that great light continues to burn, for after it goes out, there will be no other opportunity of making peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Talk of another chance! Why, this is a supernal chance!
In the time of Edward VI, at the Battle of Musselburgh, a private soldier, seeing that the Earl of Huntley had lost his helmet, took off his own helmet and put it on the head of the earl; and the head of the private soldier uncovered, he was soon slain, while his commander rode safely out of the battle. But in our case, instead of a private soldier offering helmet to an earl, it is a King putting His crown on an unworthy subject, the King dying that we might live. Tell it to all points of the compass. Tell it to night and day. Tell it to all earth and heaven. Tell it to all centuries, all ages, all millenniums, that we have such a magnificent chance in this world that we need no other chance in the next.
I am in the burnished Judgment Hall of the Last Day. A throne is lifted, but the Judge has not yet taken it. While we are waiting for His arrival, I hear immortal spirits in conversation.
“What are you waiting here for?” says a soul that went up from Madagascar to a soul that ascended from America.
“I came from America, where forty years I heard the gospel preached, and Bible read, and from the prayer that I learned in infancy at my mother’s knee until my last hour I had gospel advantage; but I did not make the Christian choice, and I am here waiting for the Judge to give me a new trial and another chance.”
“Strange!” says the other. “I had but one gospel call in Madagascar. I accepted it, and I do not need another chance.”
“Why are you here?” says one who on earth had feeblest intellect to one who had great brain, silvery tongue, and scepters of influence.
“Oh, I knew more than my fellows. I mastered libraries. I had learned titles from colleges. My name was a synonym for eloquence and power. And yet, I neglected my soul, and I am here waiting for a new trial.”
“Strange,” says the one of feeble intellect. “I knew but little of worldly knowledge, but I knew Christ and made Him my partner, and I have no need of another chance.”
Now the ground trembles with the approaching chariot. The great folding-doors of the Hall swing open. “Stand back!” cry the celestial ushers. “Stand back, and let the Judge of the quick and dead (cf 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5) pass through!”
He takes the throne, and, looking over the throng of nations (cf Matthew 25:31-46), He says, “Come to Judgement, the last Judgement, the only Judgement!” By one flash from the throne all the history of each one flames forth to the vision of himself and all others.
“Divide!” says the Judge to the assembly.
“Divide!” echo the walls.
“Divide!” cry the angelic guards.
And now the immortals separate, rushing this way and that, and after a while there is a great aisle between them, and a great vacuum widening and widening, and the Judge, turning to the throng on one side, says: “He that is righteous, let him be righteous still, and he that is holy, let him be holy still” (Revelation 22:11). Then, turning toward the throng on the opposite side, He says, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still, and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still.” Then, lifting one hand toward each group, He declares: “If the tree fall toward the south or toward the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it shall be.”
Then I hear something jar with a great sound. It is the closing of the Book of Judgement. The Judge ascends the stairs behind the throne. The hall of the last assize [court] is cleared and shut. The high court of eternity is adjourned forever.
“We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin.” ~CS Lewis
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Times Square Trolley
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.
*Adapted from “Posthumous Opportunity,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.